September 22, 2014

Phipps Hosts “Teacher’s Night Out” for Fairchild Challenge at Phipps Teachers

by Melissa Harding

#2 Moon Area MS

Last week, Kate Borger, high school programs coordinator, hosted “Phipps for Teachers’ Night Out”, an informative social event to launch the 2014-2015 Fairchild Challenge at Phipps. The evening began with networking and refreshments, followed by a presentation detailing the slate of challenges for the new school year. At the program’s conclusion, teachers were free to enjoy the beauty of the Conservatory and new Center for Sustainable Landscapes building. The participating teachers had a wonderful time and a few new faces signed up for the program this coming year. Overall, it was a great success!

More about the Fairchild Challenge
Since 2008, Phipps has been a satellite partner for the Fairchild Challenge, a multidisciplinary, standards-based environmental education program designed and initiated by the Fairchild Tropical and Botanic Garden in Miami, Florida. The program fosters interest in the environment by encouraging teenagers to appreciate the need for conservation and biodiversity and take action through intra-mural challenges that hone important skills for creative expression and communication, including visual, literary and performing arts, research, and community action. In the 2013-2014 school year, more than 1,800 local students from 54 area high schools and middle schools participated in the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps.

The above photo is a 2012 entry by Moon High School.



September 22, 2014

Welcome Reception for Dr. Emily Kalnicky, Our New Director of Science Education and Research

by Melissa Harding


Last week, Phipps held a reception honoring our new Director of Science Education and Research, Dr. Emily Kalnicky. Dr. Kalnicky spoke about her vision for expanding research at Phipps to a very excited audience of board trustees, committee members and scientists from the community.

Dr. Kalnicky brings to Phipps a wealth of qualifications, including a doctorate in ecology from Utah State University, a master’s in natural resources and environmental sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and bachelor of science degrees in zoology, psychology and Spanish from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Previously an adjunct instructor for Project Dragonfly at Miami University of Ohio and education research manager at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, she is the recipient of several research grants, awards and scholarships from the universities she attended to support her work – most notably a five-year period of research on the connection between human and frog behavior in Hawaii.

Please join us in welcoming Dr. Kalnicky to Phipps. We are excited to have her join our team!

Photo © Paul g. Wiegman





September 3, 2014

Amanda and Melissa Attend Portal to the Public Workshop in Seattle!

by Melissa Harding


This week, Amanda Joy and Melissa Harding will be heading to Seattle, WA to attend a Portal to the Public Dissemination Workshop. Portal to the Public  was created to develop a model for informal science education sites to build programs that would allow for face-to-face interactions between scientists and public audiences. Instead of a prescriptive model, the guiding framework is a structured set of concepts designed to be flexible to suit the needs of any institution.  Goals of the Portal to the Public include supporting local adoption of the framework at each dissemination site, building a community of practice, and  increasing the ability of individual museum professionals to confidently design appropriate programs, partner with scientists, facilitate professional development, and execute public programs featuring scientists.

Melissa and Amanda will attend a three-day workshop that will take place at the Pacific Science Center, where teams from a variety of informal learning institutions will create plans to implement Portal to the Public at their institutions.

The above photo was taken by Phipps Science Education and Research staff.

September 2, 2014

Biophilia: Pittsburgh, September 4 – “The Fairchild Challenge at Phipps: Bringing Environmental Engagement to the Classroom”

by Melissa Harding


Biophilia: Pittsburgh

Thursday, September 4, 2014 – 5:30 p.m.
Free to attend – RSVP required.

Pittsburgh meeting will feature our own Kate Borger, high school program coordinator at Phipps Conservatory, who will introduce the discussion topic, “The Fairchild Challenge at Phipps: Bringing Environmental Engagement to the Classroom.”

In the 2013 – 2014 school year, more than 1,800 local students from 54 area high schools and middle schools participated in the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps, a multidisciplinary competition program inviting high- and middle school students to engage with environmental issues. Guest speaker Kate Borger, who manages the Challenge, will discuss the program’s features in detail, examining the role of creative expression in environmental awareness programming and the use of the natural world as a context for learning.

About Biophilia: Pittsburgh
Biophilia: Pittsburgh is the pilot chapter for a Biophilia Network dedicated to strengthening the bond between people and the natural world through education, discussion and action. The group meets monthly at the Center for Sustainable Landscapes classroom at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens where, over delicious small-plate food and a happy-hour cash bar, a discipline or behavior will be identified — often by an expert guest speaker — and discussed among the participants in the interest of sharing ideas and identifying opportunities. Join the conversation!

RSVP by sending an email or signing up at the group’s Meetup page.

What is Biophilia?
The term “biophilia,” stemming from the Greek roots meaning “love of life,” was coined by the social psychologist Erich Fromm. It came into use in the 1980s when Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson defined biophilia as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.”

In the last twenty years, studies examining human attraction to nature have yielded convincing evidence that links interactions with nature with positive gains in productivity, increased healing rates, and even enhanced learning comprehension in a wide range of sectors.

Biophilia Pittsburgh

The top image was taken by Science Education and Research staff.

September 1, 2014

2014-2015 Fairchild Challenge at Phipps: The Challenges are Posted!

by Melissa Harding

Fairchild Challenge Phipps (5)

The 2014-2015 Fairchild Challenge at Phipps is ready to go! This year’s exciting challenges are, as always, a fun mix of art and science designed to get students thinking about real world issues. These challenges invite students to investigate and engage with some of the most controversial contemporary topics in environmental science and devise imaginative and effective responses. This multi-disciplinary, standards-based outreach program is designed to give students the opportunity to shine in their areas of interest; from singing a song to writing beautiful prose, every student has a talent that can be utilized in this program.

Some highlights from this year’s challenges include:

Reflective Essay: You Without Technology

Writing: Eco-Scientist Superhero Graphic Novel

Art: Plants and Their  Pollinators

Photography: People and Edible Plants

Sign up today for the chance to win up to $1,000 for your environmental science curriculum! Registration for teachers is open and completely free!

To learn more about the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps, check out the blog.

If you are a teacher interested in participating in the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps, contact Kate Borger at or (412)622-6915, x 3905.

The above photo was taken by Kate Borger.

August 28, 2014

Our New Field Trip Brochure is Here!

by Melissa Harding


Our new field trip brochure is hot off the presses. We are so excited to share our new programs with you!

Highlights for this year include our new tropical rainforest-themed program “Tropical Pursuit”, in which students play as pieces in a life-size board game as they learn about products that come from the rainforest. Additionally, we are offering a younger version of our popular “Habitats” program, in which students learn why plants are such important parts of a habitat. And, of course, we are offering many old favorites with new twists for the upcoming school year, such as “Stupendous Seeds” and “Worms: Our Composting Friends”.

Check out the brochure below to learn more. Click on the picture to enlarge and image.

Field Trip 2014-2015 Back

The above photo was taken by Phipps Science Education and Research staff.


August 27, 2014

Home Connections: Sensory Play for Young Children

by Melissa Harding


Our senses are how we learn about the world. When we talk about “observation skills“, we are really talking about using our senses to understand what is going on around us. In fact, observation is the foundation of all science; it causes us to ask questions and seek answers through experimentation. Observation skills are important. That is why we work so hard to make sure that our students are spending their time observing the natural world and why we care so much about promoting observation skills in this space. One of our favorite ways to help young children learn to use their senses is through the use of sensory bins. Sensory bins are common in any early childhood settings, from pre-schools to nature centers, and provide children with a tactile way to learn about color, shapes, plants and animals.

We have developed a variety of sensory bins for different age groups, based on what is appropriate and safe for children in different stages of development. Here are a few of our most successful bins:

08-Dirt Day 4 017

Little Sprouts (ages 2 and older)
Children ages 2-3 are still learning many gross and fine motor skills. They are not yet able to articulate well with their hands, grasp objects with care or perform detailed actions. With this mind, sensory bins for this age group are meant to stimulate the senses and give children practice stacking, building, drawing and molding shapes, and just generally manipulating objects. Adding fresh scents, bright colors and pleasing textures makes these bins fun for older children as well.

Day 4 003Cloud Dough: Cloud dough is a great way to add texture and scent to your sensory bins. Made with a base of flour and vegetable oil, the resulting “dough” is both crumbly and holds a shape, rather like wet sand. Try adding cookie cutters or shaped ice cube trays to the bin.

To make cloud dough, you will need: 7 cups any type of flour and 1 cup vegetable oil. Mix it all together until the oil is evenly dispersed throughout the flour. Use your hands.

Tracing Salt: Tracing salt is made with ordinary table salt and essential oils. A thin layer of this scented salt is put in a shallow bin for manipulation; this bin is great for promoting literacy and creativity, as children can trace letters, numbers or pictures into the salt and then erase it and start again. It’s a fun tool to use when practicing letters, shapes, or numbers. We like to add feathers and paint brushes to give our students something to make shapes with besides their fingers, but anything soft and stiff would work.

To make tracing salt, you will need: 3 cups iodized salt and 5-7 drops essential oil. Place one cup salt in a bag and add 2-3 drops essential oil. Close bag and massage the contents to mix. Add essential oil to achieve the scent you desire; remember, less is often more with strong oils. Follow these steps until all salt has been scented. Add drops of food coloring to the salt for optional color if desired.

Salt Dough: Salt dough is a great go-to staple. All children love to play with salt dough or other play dough. Salt dough is made with flour, salt and water; the resulting dough is moldable and will even dry into permanent shapes if left out for a few days. However, this dough is able to last for up to a month in a sealed sensory bin. Try adding herbs, spices, food coloring, grains and even glitter to create extra-special dough.

To make salt dough, you will need: 2 cups flour, 1 cup salt and 1 cup water. Mix salt and flour, gradually stirring in water until it forms a dough-like consistency. Form a ball with your dough and knead it for at least 5 minutes with your hands, adding flour as needed to create a smooth texture.

Dance Scarves: Dance scarves are perfect for sensory play: they come in a rainbow of colors, they are soft and floaty, and they can be made into a costume. They are fun to twirl with, to throw up into the air like fall leaves, and to pile up and lay on. Children will pull them all out of the bin and play with them for hours.


Seedling Scientists (ages 4 and older)
Children ages 4-5 are learning more fine motor skills, spatial skills, independence, and the ability to self-regulate. They need to practice manipulating small objects, whether pouring things from one container to another or nesting differently sized objects into each other. These bins are not appropriate for younger children, as the objects in these bins can cause a choking hazard to young children who like to put things in their mouth during play.

IMG_0010Seeds: Seeds of all shapes and sizes fill the seeds bin; some seeds, like corn, are recognizable and others, like lotus seeds, are odd and interesting to children. This bin gives children a chance to observe and identify a variety of seeds, as well as fun material to fill up containers and serve as tea. Children like to run their fingers through the pleasant texture of the seeds and pick out seeds of different size and shape. Add some measuring cups, funnels, wide tubes and other containers in odd shapes to help children manipulate the seeds.

Caps: While a bin full of empty bottle caps seems like an odd choice, this repurposed material is perfect for early learners. Caps of all shapes, sizes and colors fill our bin. Children love to stack them into towers, fit them inside each other, and use them for pretend play.

Colored Rice: Rice is another material that feels silky against the skin and makes a pleasing sound when poured from cup to cup. Color your rice with vinegar and food coloring, or use spices and botanical dyes, to create a rainbow of beautiful colors. Rice also makes a great base for small world play, whether you are hiding plastic bugs in green rice, pretending your blue rice is an ocean, or using yellow rice to simulate the desert.

To make colored rice, you will need: 1 cup of rice, 1 tsp of white vinegar, and several drops of food coloring. In a bag or bowl, mix rice, vinegar and food coloring and shake/stir to combine. Place colored rice on a piece of aluminum foil to dry before use.

Dirt: What kid doesn’t love to play in the dirt? Potting soil is a safe, clean way to play with dirt. Add kid-sized shovels and rakes, buckets, and plastic bugs to make this bin into a mini garden patch. Be sure to use sterile dirt, rather than dirt from your yard, as soil from outside may contain insects, fungus or bacteria that could be potentially harmful.

Adding scents: Adding essential oils is a natural and safe way to add a variety of scents to your bins. Additionally, many essential oils are naturally antibacterial and can keep your bins both clean and sweet-smelling. Consider using lavender as a calming scent, mint for stimulation, or citrus for a fresh scent. As a fun alternative, try adding herbs like fresh lavender blossoms or rosemary leaves for added texture and scent.

About choking hazards: For children under the age of 3, choking can be a danger when dealing with small objects. Any object smaller in size than a toilet paper tube can be hazardous if ingested and cause children to choke. For this reason, always supervise your children when they are interacting with sensory bins and choose materials that are appropriate for their age and level of development.

Remember, these are just a few sensory bins suggestions. There are many objects that you have in your home already that would create wonderful sensory experiences for your child. Shaving crème, water and bubbles, mud, and play sand are items that would make some delightfully messy sensory bins as well.

For more sensory bin ideas, check out these great websites:

The Imagination Tree
Teaching Preschool
Happy Hooligans

To learn more about the importance of observation, check out this post!

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman. 


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