July 23, 2014

In With the Interns: Week Four

by Melissa Harding


In with the Interns is our new segment featuring the 2014 high school interns; this segment will explore what they do, learn and experience this summer. Written by Kate Borger, this segment will also feature original words and artwork from the interns.

This week, we were especially grateful for the unseasonably pleasant temperatures which made all our outdoor ventures that much more delightful, from a street tour with Matt Erb, arborist from Tree Pittsburgh, to weeding the Tree Pittsburgh nursery and the gardens at Phipps Garden Center. The week ended on a scrumptious note as we cooked with Rosemarie Perla from Slow Food Pittsburgh. And in between: work with the horticulture staff and an introduction to fracking and renewable energy sources.

Here are some of the interns own words about this week and what they learned:

 “This past week has been as entertaining and enlightening as those before it. We began our week by splitting into groups and helping out Phipps horticulture staff. In the morning my group potted and staked plants that will be incorporated into the fall show, while in the afternoon we spread mulch in the Palm court. On Tuesday we visited Tree Pittsburgh and toured around the streets of north Point Breeze, identifying trees and learning about the process of planting trees in the city.  On Wednesday my group worked in the Fruit and Spice room. We finished our week, once again, by working at the Phipps Garden Center, where we made lunch and did a bit of tree identification.”
-Ahmir Allen

“My highlight this week was our cooking experience! We cooked amazing parmesan cheese noodles with a side of multi-grain bread and salad. It was amazing. I feel like we  as a group bonded making this meal. This was by far the best cooking experience so far in the program.”
- Alexis Smith

“I enjoyed learning about renewable energy, which was this week’s theme. The new information I acquired about fracking offered me a view of a world I wasn’t that familiar with and showed me another way I could help the environment. On top of that, my favorite activity this week was the field trip to Tree Pittsburgh. Personally, I would do tree identification all day. It just connects me more to nature, knowing specifically what’s around me, and it makes me enjoy it more. Oh and let’s not forget about cooking Thursday; the pasta and zucchini sauce was very delicious!”
- Larissa Koumaka

“Week three was a really fun week. We had the chance to go to Tree Pittsburgh, learn more about how Phipps chose Tropical Forest India, a little bit about India and Africa, and we also had the chance to work with the horticulture staff again. The most fun thing about this week was learning about India and Africa from a staff member. His job is to go to other countries and see how it can improve on the decoration at Phipps. That was really interesting to hear stories of how they choose the Tropical Forest.”
- Ephraim St. Cyr

“This week was full of some new work experiences with the horticulture staff, in which I worked around the Tropical Forest doing exhibit cosmetic work, along with staking plants in the production greenhouses. During the week I learned more about fracking and some of its down sides. I am looking forward to learning about environmental issues that can affect Pittsburgh in the final two weeks.”
- Aaron Sledge

“My favorite part of the week was probably helping Mike in the Edible Garden with Ephraim. It’s the physical labor in the morning that I really love doing here at Phipps, especially when I get to plant or harvest crops. We also discussed fracking a lot, which I really enjoyed. We also watched the movie Gasland, which is an amazing documentary on fracking. Overall, this was a really interesting, informative and fun week.”
-Dani Einloth

“My favorite part of this week was when Ben came in and talked with us about how he designs the Tropical Forest. He travels to places like Africa or India, taking pictures there. He recreates his memories in the Conservatory to share with the public. I also learned about specific plants in that room, things I never knew before. For example, this one plant is the main ingredient in Chanel No.5 perfume.”
- Anna Steeley

“The date is Tuesday, July 15th, the setting features Tree Pittsburgh’s nursery. Amongst all of it, Phipps 8 interns, including myself. Not only did we help with weeding their nursery, but we were given a tree identification walk around the neighborhood. This was extremely interesting as well as practical because I see these trees everywhere I go and now I can  identify their type.”
-Will Grimm

Another full week comes to a close with minds and taste buds open to new experiences!

The above photo was taken by Kate Borger.


July 22, 2014

Home Connections: Flower Pigment Art

by Melissa Harding


“The earth laughs in flowers.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are many different crafts that we make with flowers – gluing them to crowns, making flower petal butterflies, or using them as paint brushes. In fact, flowers are a wonderful part of just about any nature craft; they add pops of color to nature weavings, mobiles and nature journals. One of the new ways that we have been using them this summer is for their pigments. The most common plant pigment is chlorophyll, which is used primarily for photosynthesis. Other colors found in leaves, like reds and yellows, are secondary colors that also help absorb light energy. Flower pigments, the colors in the petals and sepals, are used to attract pollinators. Plant pigments are made out of a variety of molecules, including anthocyanins and carotenoids. While the biology of plant pigments is fascinating, it is also really easy to get them out of the plants themselves. So easy, in fact, that kids do it all the time (think grass stains). All you need to do is rub the plant against some fabric or paper and the pigments come right off onto the surface. With this in mind, we have being creating some fun crafts that use flower pigments as color.

Flower Pounding
A really fun way to get the pigments onto paper or fabric is by pounding. This can be accomplished in any manner of ways, but we like to use small stones. While a wooden mallet or small hammer will do the best job of evenly flattening the flowers, small stones are more kid-friendly. Specifically, we use flat, decorative driveway stones that are about 3 inches square or less in size. There is no need to hit the flowers hard; a gently tap will do it. Lay your flowers flat on the surface of your choice and place a small piece of white paper or fabric over the flower, then gently tap the flower all over with the flat of the stone. Remove the cover and peel off the flower; you should see the flower’s shape echoed in the pigment print.

The best paper to use for this project is watercolor paper. Unlike office or drawing paper, watercolor paper is thick and has dimples that will readily hold on to the flower pigments. We like to make bookmarks and picture frames out of our flower pounding projects, but the sky is the limit. If using fabric, unbleached linens and muslins will work best. Ideas for fabric include lavender sachets, cloth napkins and table runners. You will want to start with a white or cream base, as the pigments will not always be dark enough to show up on colored fabric or paper.

Flower Rubbing
Pounding is a technique that can sometimes be difficult for younger children. In lieu of pounding with a small stone, flowers can be rubbed across the surface to produce a color. In this case, it is much more difficult to recreate the shape of your plant on the base. Rather, you will end up with smears of color. However, the sensory experience of rubbing flowers to produce colored pigment is a wonderful activity for small children. The scent, color and texture of a variety of flowers will be a worthwhile nature exploration activity, even if the results are not as polished.

Not all flower are pigmented equally…
While all flowers have some pigment in them, not all of them work equally well in this activity. Some petals are too watery or too thin and will not produce a good image. Test all your flowers on scrap material or paper before you put them on your finished product. We recommend pansies, chrysanthemums, goldenrod, colored daisies, and marigolds to start out. Additionally, leaves will add a lovely pop of green to your project. Like with flowers, stay away from thick, watery leaves. Explore your yard and local green-spaces to find a variety of colors and textures from your project. Or simply buy a bouquet of grocery store flowers – any flower and leaf has the potential to make beautiful art!

Other crafts using plant pigments from around the web:
Nature Colors by Fakin’ It
“A Day with No Crayons” Flower Pounding Craft by The Crafty Crow
Flower Pounding Prints by Rhythm of the Home

The above photos were taken by Science Education staff.


July 21, 2014

Help Scientists to Find Lost Ladybugs

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education 69

If there is one sight that gardeners love to see in the summer, it is a ladybug. Spotting a ladybug on a branch near the garden is always a good sign. These little red beetles are truly garden friends; instead of snacking on plants, like many other insects, ladybugs would rather eat those culprits responsible for the most damage – aphids. Aphids are soft-bodied insects that suck the juices out of tender, young plants and new growth; aphids target the sick and weak, making quick work of them as they feed in large groups. Ladybugs charge in like the cavalry and help to remove these pesky critters from the garden. Unfortunately, all is not right in the world of ladybugs. Species distribution across North America has been changing; over the past twenty years, several species of native ladybugs that used to be quite common have become very rare. This is partly because non-native ladybugs have been taking over their habitats and making it harder for them to compete for resources. Scientists are studying this phenomenon because the effect that these new populations will have on plants is unknown. They are trying to determine the impact that these changes will have on the control of plant pests both in the wild and at home.

This is where you come in; The Lost Ladybug Project, run out of Cornell University, is a citizen science program designed to help scientists gather data about ladybug distribution.  Citizen science programs, in which regular people collect data about the plants and animals in their communities, help scientists to have eyes and ears all over the country. These particular programs are not only important for data collection, but are also a great way to spend some time outside with your family and practice your observation skills.  In the case of the Lost Ladybug Project, entomologists at Cornell are really good at identifying ladybug species, but are unable to sample in enough places to find the really rare ones. They need you to be their legs, eyes and cameras! Send them in pictures of the ladybugs that you find and they can learn more about  the area where you live. Participating in this program is especially fun, since it involves catching and studying your specimens.

Here is how the Lost Ladybug Project works:
1. Go out into your backyard, local park or other natural area and look for ladybugs. Collect them in a jar.
2. Photograph each insect
3. Upload your photos to the project website, along with information on where and when you found them.

Sounds easy, right? You can choose to participate every day, or just one time; every data point is useful! The project website includes helpful hints for catching, collecting and photographing your finds.

Need convincing? Check out this wonderful video from PBS NewsHour about the Lost Ladybug Project; this work is a really effective way to engage children in science:

This is both an exciting project for your family this summer and a way to help scientists at the same time. It is also great fun for church groups, scouts or even adults. Head outside and give it a try today!

The above picture was taken by Julia Petruska.

July 18, 2014

Summer Camp Recap: My Five Senses

by Melissa Harding

Day 4 065

Summer Camp Recap is our seasonal segment featuring our summer camp programs. This is the place for camp parents to find pictures of their campers in action and see all the fun things we did all week. It’s also a great place for educators to pick up craft, story and lesson ideas for their own early childhood programs!

Little Sprouts: My Five Senses is based on touching, smelling, hearing, seeing and even tasting. Campers learned what their five senses are and used them to explore the natural world. They spent the week smelling herbs, feeling plants and listening for nature sounds.

Day one focused on sight. Campers learned about their sense of sight and why it is important to look closely; they learned to use binoculars and magnifying glasses to look far away and up close. Next, they went on a “worm” hunt around the Conservatory, looking for colorful yarn amongst the plants, and playing an “I Spy” game in the South Conservatory train exhibit.

Day two focused on smell. Campers used smelly Kool-Aid paint to color in pictures of fruit, matching the picture to the smell. Next, they smelled different fruits and veggies - citrus fruits, peach, pear and even a potato. They also took a walk to the Tropical Forest to hunt for smelly spices. Campers smelled cinnamon, black pepper and other fragrant plants. Back in the classroom, they planted a scented geranium to take home; campers can practice their observation skills all year long!

Day 4 038

Day three focused on touch. Campers decorated T-shirts with handprints, feeling the cool paint on their hands. Next, they touched a variety of natural objects, feeling things that are smooth, rough, hard and soft. The lesson focused on touching different leaves and flowers; campers took a walk around the green roof looking for different textures and trying to match leaves to their plants using their sense of touch. Campers also learned about worms and explored their new wiggly friends with their hands.

Day four focused on hearing. Campers made seed shakers from repurposed materials.  They then learned about their ears and hearing, singing songs about their senses and reading a story with silly sounds. They took a walk in the Conservatory to find different “shakers”, each one filled with different seeds, along the way. Campers listened to the sound of each shakers and tried to guess what size and shape the seeds were.

Want to talk to your Little Sprout about his five senses? Here are some of the books that we read this week at camp:
Here Are My Hands Bill Martin
My Five Senses Aliki
Listen to the Rain Bill Martin and John Archambault
Nosy Rosie Holly Keller
Meow Said the Cow Emma Dodd
Who Says That? Arnold Shapiro
Growing Colors Bruce McMillan
You Smell Mary Murphy
Can You Growl Like A Bear? John Butler

Check out the slideshow below!

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While our summer Little Sprouts camps are full, we are offering even more programs this fall! Our first, My Favorite Fruits, is offered both October 17 from 9:30-10:30 and 11-noon. Contact 412-441-4442 ext. 3925 or see the website to register!

For more pictures from Summer Camp, check out our Facebook page!

The above photos were taken by Science Education Staff.

July 17, 2014

Backyard Connections: Easy Bug Traps

by Melissa Harding


There are more bugs on this planet than any other animal. That means that there are millions and millions of insects out there, outnumbering us all in multitudes. There are so many insects, in fact, that it is difficult for scientists to truly know them all. Researchers are discovering new insects all the time; if you are looking to discover an animal and name it after yourself, entomology is your best bet. Thankfully, you don’t need to be a learned entomologist to appreciate how awesome insects are. Being a bug scientist is easier than you think. At summer camp, we teach all of our campers to use observation to practice good scientific skills. While we are always able to look through our native landscapes to find insects to study, we also like to set a variety of bug traps to see what we can catch. We set both bait and pit traps over the course of the week and check them daily, hoping to find an insect friend or two.

This activity works well in the Conservatory and even better outside! Here is how we do it:

Day 1 Bugs 050

Bait Traps
Bait traps attract insects with food. Rotten meat attracts carrion feeders, while other insects like overripe fruits, fermented foods, sugary foods, or oils (peanut butter). While not all of these are suitable for bait traps at home, knowing what you want to catch will help you decide what kind of bait to use. At Phipps, we use sugar and baked potatoes.

Sugaring is a method of painting tree trunks, rocks, etc. with sugar to mimic the natural weeping of sap from a wounded tree. This is a good method to catch nectar-drinking insects like butterflies and bees. To make sugar solution, mix two parts of sugar with one part warm water and stir until dissolved. Paint this solution on tree trunks, rocks, or other areas where you would like to attract bugs; areas that are easy to observe are best. Check after several hours to see what you’ve caught.

Baked potato traps are just what they sound like; the soft vegetation will attract decomposers like potato bugs, millipedes and ants. To cook potatoes, poke several holes in a potato and microwave on high power for 5-10 minutes until tender. Cut this potato in half and lay face down on bare soil. Choose a place that is shady and cool, not in direct sunlight. Leave the trap overnight and check the next day by lifting the potato and looking for bugs on the white underside.

059Pit traps
Pit traps are an easy way to catch ground-dwelling insects, such as ground beetles and millipedes. These little critters walk along on the ground and fall into your trap, where it is easy to catch and observe them. These traps also usually include some type of bait to entice bugs to come closer for a look.

We make our pit traps out of repurposed containers. Old pill bottles or small glass jars make great traps. Fill your trap with a small amount of mashed banana and cereal; add a small amount of dirt on top to give the insects something to hide in. Finally, smear a thin layer of petroleum jelly around the inside rim of the trap near the top. Take your trap and bury it in a moist, shady location; dig a hole deep enough that the entire container fits into the dirt and is flush with the top of the ground. Cover your trap with a large leaf to give it some cover. Let your trap sit for 24 hours and check to see what you’ve caught.


Creating a happy bug habitat
The bugs in your trap will not survive long if they are not put into a hospitable environment. While an empty bug box is best for observation, if you plan to keep your bugs for the long term they will need somewhere comfortable to stay. Creating a bug habitat is easy; all your bug needs is access to oxygen, food, moisture, and places to hide. A plastic bug box is built for this, but you can also use a shoebox or plastic container as long as you poke some small holes into the top for air. Next, add some vegetation and dirt for both places to hide and food. You can lightly spray your vegetation with water to add moisture to the environment. If you know what kind of bug you have, look up what foods they will enjoy most.

Once you have caught some critters, it’s time to observe them. This is the time to put your bug into a clear, small bug box or into a small, empty plastic container. Use all your senses to observe – look, smell, listen and, if appropriate, touch. Never taste or lick your bug friends – neither of you will enjoy the experience! Jot down your findings in a notebook; this is also a great time to draw your observations and make note of  your bug’s behaviors. When you are done observing, either let your bug back into it’s new home or let it go free.

This is a fun activity that you can do at home in your own backyard. Try out some of these fun and easy bug traps today – you may be surprised by the diversity of life that you find!

The above photos were taken by Science Education staff.




July 16, 2014

Encouraging Empathy Over Achievement

by Melissa Harding


“Integrity is the essence of everything successful.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

What are our hopes for our children? To be successful, to be happy, to be self-sufficient – those seem fairly obvious. How about wanting our kids to be kind? While we may say that we value kindness and caring, that being a good person is better than anything else, our kids are perceiving that we really want something different. The Making Caring Common Project from the Harvard School of Graduate Education has recently released a study called The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values that takes a closer look at just what our kids are hearing from both our words and our actions. The results are more dismaying than they are surprising. When asked to rank what was most important to them, 80% of the youth in the study chose happiness or achievement as their top choice, with roughly 20% choosing caring for others. While hard work and living an overall happy life are important things, it is unfortunate that they are overshadowing the importance of kindness.

Looked at objectively, empathy and kindness are the kinds of pro-social behaviors that lead to civic engagement; it is important to society as a whole that citizens work selflessly at times for the common good, whether it is for their neighborhood, church or wider community. We don’t appear to be creating the kind of people who will donate blood, organize parades and food drives, serve on church vestries, care for aging parents, or run for public office. These same kinds of people also value civil public discourse and harmony within a tolerant community. We are not preparing our children to create this kind of society in the future. Clearly, there is a gap between what we say we value and what we actually do. While we may give lip service to the importance of sharing and caring, our kids are not buying it. About 80% of the youth in the study say that their parents are more concerned with achievement and happiness than caring for others, which makes it unsurprising that they value those two highest themselves. Parents appear to be giving more power and frequency to those messages than to messages of kindness.


Interestingly, or perhaps ironically, here is the real truth: people who focus on caring for others are happier and more successful than their peers. The messages that we send about prioritizing those aspects neither increase happiness nor achievement in children. It turns out that positive relationships and pro-social behavior are strong indicators of future success. Empathy is not only an essential social skill, but an academic one; research shows that successful learners are not only knowledgeable, but also empathetic. Successful students not only exceed in the classroom, but in the community. People like others who are kind and nice to them; this helps with networking, achievement in the workplace and overall personal satisfaction. In contrast, people who are self-interested are less likely to do what is right and are also less likely to have developed the social skills key to being a good parent, friend, spouse, and employee. As these relationships are often our highest sources of happiness, this does not bode well for their overall well-being.

Fortunately, there is some good news in all of this. While most youth ranked caring and fairness as the least of the three presented values, they still think that it is important to some degree. While not ranking kindness first, many youth did rank it highly. Many also expressed that they would be willing to tutor a friend or help out at school on a Saturday – as many as 38%. The roots of empathy are there, just in need of some development. Luckily, developing empathy and kindness in anyone, whether a child or an adult, takes nothing more than practice. The key for parents and educators is to walk the walk rather than just talk; we need to stop saying one thing and doing another. While changing the cultural norm is not easy, be assured that it happens over the course of society all the time. It’s only in the last several decades that the sense of the self became more significant than community practice and it can surely change back again.

Here are a few ways to encourage empathy and kindness at home:
1. Nurture others: Learning to be caring is like learning a musical instrument – it takes practice, practice, practice. Create ongoing opportunities for your child to help out; examples include chores around the house, community and church projects or helping a an elderly neighbor.
2. Be a good example: Model the behavior that you would like them to have.
3. Help children to recognize their own feelings: Helping your child to learn what they are feeling and express it will allow them to better communicate their feelings with others; this will reduce destructive behavior and your child an outlet for negative emotions.
4. Take care of living things: Giving a child the opportunity to nurture a pet or a garden will help develop empathy.
5. Perform random acts of kindness: Performing acts of kindness as a family is a great way to build connections with the community and among yourselves.
6. Spend time in nature: As children learn to treat the world around them with respect and care, so they will also treat each other.

At some point, we will need to address the messages that society sends all of our children head on. Until then, we can change the priorities in our homes and schools and try to reclaim the ethical imperative of a civically engaged society.

Check out these links to learn more:
Learn more at the Making Caring Common Project
Check out this blog post to learn more about kindness and nature.
Read this excellent article by Jessica Lahey about the issues raised in this study.


The above photo was taken by Cory Doman.


July 15, 2014

Home Connections: Homemade Lip Balm Made Simple

by Melissa Harding


Bees are incredible little insects. They pollinate the plants we need to eat, live in an incredibly complex hive society and have amazing bodies designed for flight and defense. Every summer camp eventually gets around to the subject of bees. We often talk about the importance of pollination and how bees play the key role in getting our food from plant to plate. We also like to talk about products made from bees, both honey and beeswax. Children understand honey, but beeswax can be confusing. To help our students understand what wax is and how it is used by bees through a hands-on lesson, we make our own lip balm. Not only is this incredibly popular with our campers, but their families as well.

There are many online tutorials about how to make lip balm. They don’t all have children in mind and some can be quite complex. Our recipe is not fancy, but it is so easy that a child can do it (with adult supervision). It has only a few ingredients and all are fun to feel and smell; making lip balm is a very sensory experience.

To make lip balm, you will need the following ingredients: bees wax granules, coco butter, castor or coconut oil, essential oils (optional), raw honey (optional)

A word about sourcing your materials: There are a variety of places to purchase lip balm materials, but your best bet would be to purchase them online. Before you purchase, look into the sourcing of these materials to be sure that they are sustainably harvested. Also be sure that the materials you order are meant to be used in cosmetic products and are food-grade quality.

Phipps Balm

4 TB Coconut or castor oil

3 TB beeswax

4 TB coco butter

15 drops essential oil

1 TB raw honey

Directions: Place oils, honey and beeswax in a double boiler (or heatproof bowl resting on top of a small saucepan of simmering water). (As a side note, we have a double boiler that is solely used for this craft and not for anything else, which makes cleanup easier.) Heat gently until everything has melted.

Remove mixture from heat, and add an essential oil (or two) of your choice. Stir until blended.

Ladle or pour mixture into containers, place covers on, and let sit to cool and set up.

(fills approximately one dozen 1/2 oz tins)


What are essential oils?
Essential oils are naturally made from plants; they are not actual oils as we would think of olive oil, but rather a distilled version of the plant itself. Essential oil is the real star of this lip balm, as it will give it fragrance and taste. Since essential oils are so concentrated, they should not be used directly on the skin. This is why this recipe uses a carrier oil of some kind – in our case, we use coco butter and coconut or castor oil, but jojoba, grape seed or almond oil will do. This carrier oil acts as a “carrier” for scents and flavors of the essential oils. The honey will add a subtle sweetness to your lip balm and is completely optional based on your desire. Finally, beeswax makes your lip balm harder; the more beeswax you add, the more solid your final product will be.

Essential oil suggestions
While most essential oils can be used for lip balm, there are many that will taste or smell undesirable. Citrus essential oils, like lemon and orange, are poor choices for lip balm as they can cause lip irritation. Flowery oils may smell nice, but will not taste great. Kid favorites at Phipps are peppermint and vanilla. Sometimes we combine them together, sometimes we just use one or the other. Keep in mind that your lip balm will have a chocolate fragrance, but not chocolate taste, so look for oils that will compliment that scent.

This fun craft is perfect for a rainy day or just to explore more about the products that come from bees. Enjoy!

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman and Science Education Staff.




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