Archive for January, 2013

January 15, 2013

Home Connections: Homemade Dough

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education Playdough (4)

While it can be fun to spend a winter afternoon sled-riding and building snow forts, there are some days when it is just too cold to play outside. With its shorter days and colder temperatures, January is a great time to plan some fun, indoor crafts with your child. One craft that we use all the time with our campers is homemade dough. We make both playdough and salt dough with which campers sculpt, craft and play.

Phipps Science Education Playdough (5)

Playdough is our most popular dough and we make it all summer long for our campers. This dough is cooked on the stove. Totally natural and non-toxic, the dough recipe that we use utilizes cream of tartar and oil to create a pliable, soft dough that never dries out. A generous amount of salt preserves it and keeps it from going bad. While your child can eat this dough safely, the high salt content makes it very unappetizing.

To make playdough, you need the following ingredients:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup iodized salt
1 TB salad oil
2 TB cream of tartar
1 cup water
1 packet of Kool-Aid (optional)

Instructions: Mix all ingredients together in a saucepan until combined. Heat gently on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture forms a ball. The dough will change from a milky liquid to a rubbery, congealed blob. Remove dough from the pot and allow to cool until it is only mildly warm to the touch (5-10 minutes). Knead dough until smooth.

Keep in mind that making playdough is more of an art than a science. Once you have made it a few times, you will know just what the dough looks like when it is cooked. Optionally, adding packets of flavored Kool-Aid will enhance your dough and make it more stimulating to the senses. Please keep in mind that just because your playdough smells like candy, it definitely does not taste like candy.

Your homemade playdough will keep for weeks in a sealed plastic bag or container. If kept covered, it should not dry out.


Salt Dough
Salt dough is an excellent option for a dough recipe that does not need to be cooked. A batch of salt dough can be mixed in under five minutes and is a great idea for a low-cost, easy craft project.  Unlike playdough, salt dough does dry out, even if kept in a container. It is not meant to last for more than a few hours of fun. Salt dough can be used to make ornaments and cut-outs, hand print stones, pots, and an assortment of other crafts.

To make salt dough, you need the following ingredients:

1 cup salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup luke warm water

Instructions: In a large bowl 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. The longer you knead your dough, the smoother it will be. Much the same way that playdough is edible but not delicious, salt dough is as salty as its name suggests. This dough is best kept away from pets, as the high salt content may make them sick if they ingest enough.

You can let your salt dough creations air dry, however salt dough can also be dried in the oven. Bake at 200 F until your creation is dry. The amount of time needed to bake your creations depends on size and thickness; thin flat ornaments may only take 45-60 minutes, thicker creations can take 2-3 hours or more. You can increase your oven temperature to 350 F; your dough will dry faster but it may also brown, which won’t matter if you are painting your entire creation (you can also cover your dough in the oven before it turns brown).

There are a few options to color your salt dough: 1. Add powdered tempera paint to your flour, 2. add food coloring or paint to the water before you mix it with the salt/flour, or 3. add natural coloring like instant coffee, cocoa, or curry powder.

Phipps Science Education Playdough (3)

Imaginative play with dough

Both of these different kinds of dough give children plenty of opportunities for imaginative play. Dough can be sculpted into many different shapes; our campers especially love to use cookie cutters to create animal shapes. It can also be put into silicon candy molds and shaped ice-cube trays. It is best to use silicon molds, as they can be folded inside out to remove dough. Campers also enjoy using the dough to sculpt “food” and serve it as cookies, cakes and other tea party or kitchen items.

Decorative items like seeds, glitter and plant material can be added to dough to give these sculptures additional life. For example, seeds make great eyes for a snake or beautiful patterns on a decorate stone or pot. The only limit in the imagination!

Here are a few more examples of fun dough recipes and play ideas:

Snowdough, The Imagination Tree
Moldable Sand, The Imagination Tree
Gold Cloud Dough, The Imagination Tree
The A-Z of Playdough Recipes and Activities, The Imagination Tree
Beaded Salt Dough Ornaments, Mommy-Labs
Gingerbread Salt Dough, Gemma Garner
39 Ways to Play and Learn with Playdough, The Artful Parent

The above images were taken by Phipps Science Education staff.

January 11, 2013

The Fungus Among Us

by Melissa Harding


Lichens are inconspicuous organisms. These pieces of pale, calcified lace are content to sit quietly on tree trunks, tombstones, and rock ledges for decades without making much fuss; their only real threat in life is a heavy rain. Despite all that, there is much to like about lichens. For starters, they may hold the key to immortality. Scientists are finding that some organisms get stronger and larger as they age, rather than smaller and weaker. (For instance, the giant sequoia.) Lichens are just one example of this phenomenon in nature and some researchers are trying to figure out what that means for the rest of us. New York Times author Hillary Rosner explores this topic with her profile of Dr. Anne Pringle, a Harvard mycologist studying the aging process in lichens. Dr. Pringle believes that research on lichens may answer the question: Is immortality possible?

To begin with, lichens are not individuals, but rather a community of smaller organisms. Each lichen is composed of one main fungus, a group of algae and other, smaller fungi and bacteria. Since fungi are incapable of making their own food, they usually provide for themselves as parasites or decomposers. In lichen, the main fungus is essentially farming the algae for food. This means that lichens are composed of both plants and fungi, making them rather hard to classify.

Because lichens are a compound organism, reproduction can be tricky. To reproduce and expand their range, a lichen can either launch a single fungal spore that must then find a new algae to join with, or it can send out fingerlike projections called isidia, which contain both algae and fungi, to find a new home. The neat thing about lichens is that they will colonize areas that other organisms cannot. They grow on bare rock, desert sand, cleared soil, dead wood, animal bones, rusty metal, and living bark. With the right amounts of light, moisture and freedom from competition, lichens can grow anywhere. They can even survive extremes of heat, cold, and drought by hibernating. All in all, lichens are amazing organisms.

Perhaps few can appreciate them like Dr. Pringle. For eight years, she has been studying lichen formations in a Massachusetts cemetery, trying to figure out if they are deteriorating with the passage of time.  Biologists call this senescence, or declining with age.  Dr. Pringle is looking to see if the lichens are more likely to break apart over time and if their chemical or bacterial composition changes as they age, leaving them more vulnerable to pathogens.

Though Dr. Pringle is studying lichens, what she is really interested in are the fungi inside them. Scientists have long suspected that fungi don’t age, but there has been little research to back this up. A longstanding explanation for aging is that built-up genetic mutations are activated once fertility begins to taper off.  Another theory is that aging occurs because some traits that make us more reproductively successful may also be dangerous. For example, high testosterone increases fertility, but also is a known prostate cancer risk factor. Neither theory works here, since fungi reproduce asexually using spores. In fact, fungi reproduce more as they age, not less.

Dr. Pringle’s preliminary results show that as a lichen grows older and larger, it is less likely to die. The definition of aging changes from organism to organism. Death, as we know it now, is animal-centered. The rules for fungi, as well as the subjects of similar studies like the bristlecone pine and the wandering albatross, are something different.

To learn more about lichen and Dr. Pringle’s research, check out this article by Hillary Rosner in the New York Times.

The above photo was provided courtesy of Evan McGlinn of the New York Times.

January 9, 2013

Can Nature Make Us Happier? (Hint: Yes)

by Melissa Harding

bw falls-001

Walking in the city can be stressful; honking horns, loud cars whizzing past, sharing paths with speeding bikers, and suddenly ending sidewalks can turn a relaxing walk into a nightmare. Urban commuting can be difficult, but there is one country where the government is taking steps to help its citizens. The Japanese government, recognizing the natural stress relief and health benefits found in nature, has created a national system of Forest Therapy trails. Covering 67 percent of the country’s landmass, these 48 trails have been designed by Japan’s Forest Agency to promote the practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Shinrin-yoku, a term inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist conventions, is the practice of letting nature enter the body through all five senses.

The government is not just creating these trails, but conducting research on the effects forest bathing has on participants. While there have been studies in recent years that support the health benefits of nature, the government’s work is critical. Scientists in Japan are measuring what is actually happening in human cells and neurons as the body responds to nature. Led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki from the University of Chiba and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, they’re using field tests, hormone analysis, and new brain-imaging technology to uncover how this works on a molecular level (Source). This research may help move this kind of nature therapy from the fringes into the realm of mainstream medicine.

Japan may be the first country to engage in this kind of research, but they are not the only ones. South Korean and Finish governments are also starting their own research into the benefits of nature. So why is the United States so far behind? It may come from how we view nature in our lives. Much like David Thoreau, many of us view nature as a romantic notion that is outside of human civilized society. Nature is something that we escape to, rather than something we depend on to sustain us. In contast, the Japanese view nature as an integral part of their lives; nature is part of their minds and bodies and philosophy. When Japanese citizens visit the forest, it is to come back to themselves and replenish their minds and spirits.

Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a prime researcher in this field, has studied over 600 subjects since 2004. He and his colleague Juyoung Lee, also of Chiba University, have found that leisurely forest walks, compared with urban walks, yield a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. On subjective tests, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety. These numbers are so convincing that over a quarter of Japan’s 127 million citizens partake in forest therapy in some way (Source).

bw falls 3

So how can we get the same benefits without going to Japan? The key appears to be paying attention. You can’t get nature points from jogging in the woods with your headphones in. In fact, studies show that when you are distracted outside, you are more likely to be irritable and grumpy later. Deliberate, mindful attention to natural surroundings allows the mind to relax. Modern life demands long hours of sustained attention to tasks, like working at a computer all day and sitting in traffic; this is what causes our brains to grab ahold of anxiety. In contrast, the attention that we show a beautiful bird in a tree is an example of soft fascination, which allows our brains to let go of that anxiety and marvel at the world around us. Our minds do it naturally, if we let them. Short walks in greenery, or even looking at nature images, improve the brain’s ability to engage in directed attention; this type of activity not only helps improve cognitive function, but makes brains happier.

So what advice do researchers have for people looking to boost their happiness with nature? Qing Li, an immunologist in the department of hygiene and public health at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, has this advice, “If you have time for a vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month. Visit a park at least once a week. Gardening is good. On urban walks, try to walk under trees, not across fields. Go to a quiet place. Near water is also good.”

Even cold weather walks count. Whether or not participants enjoy themselves outside is immaterial to the benefits of the experience; people who walked in the cold and felt uncomfortable still report boosted brain function. January may not feel like a great time to start being outside more often, but it truly is. This new year, resolve to go to a quiet, outdoor place at least once a week and restore your brain. Not only will you feel better, but you will be smarter – for free. What a great deal!

To read more about the research surrounding the practice of shinrin-yoku, as well as to learn how the Japanese experience nature, read Outside Magazine‘s December story, The Nature Cure: The Surprising Benefits of the Great Outdoors, by Florence Williams.

The above photos were taken by Melissa Harding

January 8, 2013

Little Sprouts: Our Desert Adventure!

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education LS Deserts (1)

Even though it is cold outside, our Little Sprouts have kept warm this winter by exploring the desert. December’s Little Sprouts: Singles, Our Desert Adventure, taught campers that even the hot, dry desert is full of life. Campers learned that desert plants are very special and that there are lots of animals that depend on them for food and shelter.

To begin, campers worked with their grown-ups to paint cardboard camels with sand paint and attach legs made out of clothes pins. Living in the desert, camels are always sandy! Campers also had time to play in an exploration station full of different sand bins, animal puppets and books about the desert.

Phipps Science Education LS Deserts (10)

During the lesson, campers learned that plants in the desert need to find a way to survive in the hot, dry climate. They do this by being succulent! Campers each got to smush the liquid out of some succulent leaves to see how the plants store water, as well as touch the smelly goo inside of an aloe vera plant. Campers also learned that cacti are covered with spikes to prevent predators from eating them. Even though the campers weren’t allowed to touch the cacti, they did sing a fun song about them! Finally, they learned that the desert is full of animals and read a story about them, The Three Little Havelinas by Susan Lowell. Campers pretended to be snakes, woodpeckers, mice, havelinas (wild pigs), and coyotes.

Phipps Science Education LS Deserts (6)

During the tour, campers went through the desert room to see what desert plants look like in the ground. They observed the dry dirt and spiky plants from a safe distance with their grown-ups. Campers also picked their very own jade leaves to plant!

Phipps Science Education LS Deserts (4)

Finally, campers potted their jade leaves and played a fun game with the sand bins. Inside each bin was hidden a number of items, some of which belonged in the desert and some of which didn’t. Campers found and sorted the objects, digging for buried treasure.

Phipps Science Education LS Deserts (8)

If you want to read some great stories about the desert with your own Little Sprout, here are some suggestions:
The Three Little Havelinas by Susan Lowell
There was a Coyote Who Swallowed a Flea by Jennifer Ward
Way Out in the Desert by Jennifer Ward

Our next Little Sprouts Singles program, Our Tropical Adventure, is scheduled for February 15, 10:30 am-noon. If you would like to sign up your child for a future Little Sprouts program, please contact Sarah at (412)441-4442 ext. 3925.

For a complete list of all our Little Sprout offerings, please visit our website. We hope to see you there!

The above pictures were taken by Amanda Joy.

January 4, 2013

Herbs in Action: Botanists on the Radio!

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education_BIA (5)

Starting this Saturday, Phipps Botany in Action fellows will be appearing in a weekly radio program!  In order to share their science stories with the community, BIA fellows were interviewed for The Saturday Light Brigade. (You may remember that our Fairchild Challenge winners in the middle school category are all interviewed on SLB every month as well). The Saturday Light Brigade  is a Pittsburgh family radio station; “SLB Radio Productions, Inc. (SLB) uses radio and audio to encourage, amplify, share and archive the ideas, stories, and feelings of children, youth and families.” BIA fellow shared stories about a plant that they have had a personal connection with through their work as scientists, creating a series of Herbs In Action stories. You can hear their stories by tuning in to The Saturday Light Brigade  or listen to the archives at the Mary Jane Berger Memorial Fountain.

Herbs in Action – Airtime schedule on The Saturday Light Brigade:  All spots air at 9:05am. This radio program is available throughout Western PA, Eastern OH and streaming online.

For a full list of affiliates and options visit:

1/5 – Samantha Davis – Two-Leaved Toothwort
1/12 – Kelly Ksiazek – Nodding Onion
1/19 – Sushma Shrestha – Rhododendron
1/26 – Anita Varghese – Ginger
2/2 – George Meindl – Jewelflower
2/9 – Lisa Offringa – Black Pepper
2/16 – Aurelie Jacquet – Himalayan Birch

Not familiar with the Botany In Action program? Check out our new Follow the Fellows monthly feature!

The above photo was taken by Molly Steinwald.

January 2, 2013

January Inspire Speaker Series: Pushing Boundaries with The Living Building Challenge

by Melissa Harding


“It takes cooperation and collaboration to create a place where enthusiasm in education is celebrated and shared.”
– The Bertschi School

Join us January 10, 5:30-8:30 p.m. for the fourth session of the INSPIRE Speakers Series , which will feature guests from both the Bertschi School and Phipps Conservatory to talk about the Living Building Challenge. The Bertschi School, a preK-5 elementary school located in Seattle, Washington, is both the builder of the first LEED gold-certified building on an independent school campus in the Pacific NW and the first living building in Washington State, the Bertschi School Living Building Science Wing. Inspire Speaker guests include Bertschi School project team members Chris Hellstern, Stacey Smedley and Mark Beuhrer. Additionally, Phipps Executive Director, Richard Piancentini, will speak about the new Center for Sustainable Landscapes. GBA and Phipps are excited to host these accomplished guests to speak about the value of uniting entire communities for the purpose of sustainability through the Living Building Challenge.

The Bertschi School is a highly collaborative community that balances rigorous academics with kindness and social responsibility. Students actively take part in the community, learn from a strong interdisciplinary curriculum and benefit from innovative science, arts, physical education, and horticulture programs. The Bertschi School’s goal is to foster successful learners and engaged citizens.

 “At Bertschi, I don’t feel like I do anything alone, but I am confident to do things by myself.” – Bertschi student

This process of collaboration is also evident in the creation of the Living Building Science Wing. Inspired by the Living Building Challenge, design professionals formed the Restorative Design Collective in order to provide design and pre-construction services to the school pro bono. The task was daunting; the project team had to create a school that not only achieved net-zero energy and water usage, but would also be an interactive teaching tool for students. The solution was innovative; students worked with design professionals to brainstorm some of the building’s most unique features. One of these includes a river that runs through a channel in the concrete floor, showing the building’s rainwater harvesting system.

Another example of the power of local minds and materials is the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL). The CSL, Phipps new education, research and administrative facility, is aiming to exceed even the Living Building Challenge in its quest to be one of the greenest buildings in the world. The CSL will generate all of its own energy with state-of-the art technologies such as solar photovoltaics, geothermal wells and a vertical axis wind turbine; treat and reuse all water captured on site; and feature a restorative landscape with many beautiful varieties of native plants. This was made possible through the use of an integrative design process in which the design team and stakeholders formulated ideas and figured out best practices before the building was off the ground. Using this approach, all parties were involved from the start and worked together to create innovative ideas.

Learn more about how the process of integrative design and community collaboration can create innovation in green buildings!

WHEN: Thursday, January 10th, from 5:30 – 8:30 p.m.
WHERE: Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, One Schenley Park, Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Registration Information:
• GBA Member Fee: $25.00
• Member of Partner Organization Fee (Phipps Conservatory or Tri-State Area School Study Council): $25.00
Non-member Fee: $45.00
Student Fee: $25.00

Register HERE. Or for group rates and scholarship information, please contact Jenna Cramer.

The above image was provided by the Green Building Alliance.

January 1, 2013

Hope for a New Year

by Melissa Harding

bird catcher - auguste steinwald 2

A new year gives us all a chance to start over and to hope for better things. The old year is gone and with it both the good and bad that it brought. We all have another chance to be great and do wonderful things for each other and the world around us. Let us celebrate the coming year with hope and joy!

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Emily Dickinson

The above picture was taken and copyrighted by Molly Steinwald.


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