Archive for March, 2013

March 29, 2013

What Does a Scientist Look Like?

by Melissa Harding

This article was originally posted last fall, but is reposted today due to popular demand. Enjoy!

What do you think when you hear the word “scientist”? If you think of Doc Brown from Back to the Future or Bunsen Honeydew from The Muppet Show, you are not alone. Studies show that, when asked to draw a scientist, most children draw some “mad scientist” version of those characters. Researchers have been studying this problem since the early 1980’s and have even developed a rubric for scoring how stereotypical these drawing are. The Draw-A-Scientist Checklist (DAST-C) was developed in 1983 to provide a reliable formula for analyzing student drawings. Each item on the checklist represents a stereotypical characteristic relating to students’ views of scientists. Examples include: wearing a lab coat or glasses, having bushy hair, holding instruments of knowledge like clipboards and calculators, relevent captions like “eureka!”, etc. Researchers also look for the prevalence of caucasian males representing race and gender in these drawings.

“For you, what is a scientist?” Some of the answers of primary school children gathered by Marie-Odile Lafosse-Marin, Espace des Sciences Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, ESPCI-ParisTech.

The pictures in the above video are typical examples of the kinds of drawings made by students. There have been hundreds of studies on this subject; I want to highlight a few of them to illustrate the problem, but I am more interested in presenting solutions.

One of the most famous of these studies, conducted at the US Department of Energy’s Fermilab facility (the only US laboratory dedicated to high energy physics), tracked a class of seventh grader’s perceptions of what a scientist looks like before and after visiting the lab and talking to the physicists who work there. The results are fascinating. Prior to their visit, students’ drawings showed the typical “mad scientist” aesthetic talked about above. However, after meeting the scientists in the lab and talking to them, their drawings and descriptions showed a real change; students drew scientists as regular people, with hobbies and outside interests, who also happened to have important jobs.

In another study, researchers also asked students to draw themselves practicing science in school and to describe how science relates to their lives. Most students (56%) drew themselves sitting at a desk and taking notes. When asked about their drawings, these students said that reading their books or taking notes are usually what they do in science. The minority drew themselves doing various science activities. When asked how relevent the science they do in school is to their lives at home, the majority of students viewed science as something they can use at home, although only a few cited the scientific process specifically.

The real questions is: what do studies like these mean for our students? If children perceive scientists to look a certain way, especially when that is different from themselves, it can make the field of science seem like less of an option for them and diminish diversity in the scientific community. These studies also indicate a lack of knowledge of the nature of science and the work scientists do, as well as a general lack of interest in science. Many fear that while curriculum developers and science educators strive to highlight women and different ethnicities as scientists, adult views of science may come mostly from ingrained stereotypes learned during childhood.

So let’s talk about some solutions (and there are many). It seems that the best way for children to understand what a real scientist looks like is to meet them and talk to them. One great program, 1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days, is an effort by the journal Scientific American to put real scientists into classrooms all over the country. Another example is the Botany in Action (BIA) program at Phipps, which brings scientists from all over the world to interact with students in Pittsburgh. The Eco Challenge, one such BIA event,  invites high school students to interview these scientists and learn about their research. Students learn that life in the field is both challenging and rewarding, as well as the idea that “research” can encompass a wide range of topics.

The internet is also another great source. The charming new website, This is a What a Scientist Looks Like, is a good place to start. This website invites scientists to change perceptions about what a scientist is or isn’t by being themselves: contributors submit their picture and a short description about what they do. The result is a collection of faces that challenges assumptions and represents a wide swatch of the scientific community. The Tumblr I am Science allows scientists to share personal stories about what science means to them. These heartfelt and personal online interactions with real scientists are fantastic.

Finally, talking about and investigating science at home is the best way to get your child to see the relevance of science in his or her life. There are hundreds of resources, online and at your local library, of science experiments to conduct and scientists to learn about. Most importantly, try to exhibit attitudes and values that support learning. Be positive and try to help your child see science as it already exists around him or her. Before you know it, you will have a future scientist on your hands!

For more information on how to interest your child in science learning, check out’s list of parent’s resources, including information from NASA, US Department of Education and Brain POP.

The above images were taken by Molly Steinwald and Melissa Harding.

March 26, 2013

You Might Want to Sit Down for This…

by Melissa Harding

chair 2

It can be easy to spend most of the day sitting: drive to work, sit at your desk, drive home, sit at home. This is especially true in the winter, when cold temperatures make us feel sluggish, like hibernating bears. Even though it can be wonderfully relaxing to spend the evening hours reading a good book or watching a movie, it may actually be doing more harm than good. The phrase “sitting is the new smoking” is a buzzword in the health community, where more and more research is being done on what has been dubbed “the pandemic of inactivity”. Richard Louv, nature writer, advocate and director of the Children and Nature Network, has just published a short article compiling some recent findings. The results may just shock you right out of your seat.

The average American sits 9.3 hours every day. Out of 24 hours in a day, minus the average 7.7 hours for sleeping, we spend over half of our waking hours on our bottoms. Children, who often do not have control over their actions, have it even tougher. While adults can take a break to walk up and down the halls, take a walking meeting or do some stretching, children are expected to sit still for their entire day at school. Even going to the bathroom requires permission and a hallpass. Although some schools try to get kids moving, time spent in recess is a small portion of the day. That is not to mention the fact that even after work or school many of us spend our leisure time sitting in front of screens. Sitting is so pervasive and natural to us that we don’t question how much of it we should be doing.

So why is all of this sitting a problem? Recently The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, published a series of reports that confirm physical inactivity is a leading risk factor for deaths due to non-communicable diseases.  According to the New York Times, an Australian study found that for each additional hour of television watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent.  Excessive sitting, which the study defines as nine hours a day, is a lethal activity.

While it may seem so, exercise is not the antidote to sitting. When a person is sitting, electrical activity in his muscles drops, which leads to harmful metabolic effects. His calorie-burning rate drops to about one per minute, a third of what it is walking. Insulin effectiveness drops within a single day, and the risk of developing diabetes and obesity rises. This adds up over a lifetime. According to Harold “Bill” Kohl, professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health, “Although regular physical activity is critical for weight control, it is equally or more important for lowering risk of many different chronic diseases such as heart disease, some cancers, osteoporosis and diabetes.”


Fortunately, there is a solution in sight for all of us: being outside. Nature-based exercise is good for adults and nature-based play is good for children. Some pediatricians and mental health professionals are now prescribing “green exercise” in parks and other natural settings. All this means is that kids should be engaging in more simple outdoor play, climbing trees and playing with sticks. Now that spring is around the corner, it is even easier to find fun things to do outside; planting seeds, stomping in mud puddles and hunting for blooming flowers are great April activities. No matter what outdoor activity sounds fun to you and your family, doing it together will help you stay healthier and more connected to nature.

Here are some resources to get both you and your child more active outside:
Nature Rocks: Find local natural areas, get ideas for fun outdoor activities and connect to other nature lovers
Children and Nature Natural Families Network: Learn how to start a nature club for kids and connect to other parents
Richard Louv’s Resource Supplement to Last Child in the Woods: Outdoor activities, book suggestions and helpful links
Simple Kids: Simple activity ideas to help your child explore the natural world
Home Connections: Try some of our ideas to combine outdoor exploration with fun activities

To learn more about how sitting effects your health, read the rest of Richard Louv’s article at the Children and Nature Network and check out the links to his sources scattered throughout this post.

The above photos are courtesy of via Google Images and Christie Lawry.

March 22, 2013

Weekend Nature Challenge: Haikus for Spring

by Melissa Harding


Green grass in April
Birds begin to sing in trees
Children playing outside

Birds and bees flying
Soft blades of grass on my feet
New flowers blooming

I hear birds singing.
Birds are chirping everywhere.
Their wings touch the sky.

(Three spring haikus from the third graders at Pocantico Hills School)
Spring has finally found its way to Pittsburgh. After all of the snow and cold that we have had around here this winter, it is about time! In celebration of spring being sprung, we would like to challenge you to write a nature haiku with your child this weekend. A haiku is a poem written in three simple lines. The only catch is that each line has a certain number of syllables, 5-7-5, to be exact. So short that it can be said in one breath, it is meant to capture a moment in time. See the above examples for inspiration.

Take the next few days to explore your neighborhood and then send us your captured moments in haiku form.
What new things did you discover with your child? Tell us in the comments below.

The above photo of a sprouting crocus is copyrighted by Molly Steinwald.

March 21, 2013

Follow the Fellows: Understanding the Link Between Indigenous People and Native Ecology

by Melissa Harding


The Botany in Action Fellowship program at Phipps fosters the development of the next generation of plant-based scientists who are committed to both excellent research and educational outreach. Open to PhD students enrolled at US graduate institutions, the BIA program provides Fellows with funding for use towards scientific research in the US or abroad and a trip to Phipps, to engage in science outreach training and opportunities to share his or her research to public audiences.

Current BIA Fellows are engaged in local research in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland and research abroad in Nepal, Thailand and India. Their work covers topics ranging from the role of green roof plants in urban storm water management and the effects of plant invasion on a rare woodland butterfly to identification of plants used by healers for treatment of dementia.

March’s featured fellow is Anita Varghese. Anita is PhD student in Botany at the University of Hawaii. She has lived and worked in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve Western Ghats, India since 1993, after completing her Masters in Ecology. Anita is interested in the relationship between ecology of forests and indigenous people. Her research focuses on the reasons why some people in India choose to remain harvesters of medicinal plants and forest products, while others are moving away from livelihoods that depend on forest resources. Her research combines the knowledge of native people with scientific studies to produce a comprehensive understanding of plant species to aid in conservation.

Read an update on Anita’s research and life as a scientist at the Botany In Action website!
You can follow Anita and all of the BIA as they study plants across the US and across the world at Follow the Fellows.

The following Botany In Action update was written by Amanda Joy, Botany in Action Fellowship coordinator.

The above image was provided by Anita Verghese.

March 19, 2013

Night Crawlers: An Creepy Ed-Venture

by Melissa Harding


Nocturnal creatures are mysterious; they live a secretive life, busily working while we are all fast asleep. Some creatures, like owls and moths, are cute enough to have a good reputation. Others, like cockroaches and slugs, are not. In fact, you could call them…creepy. Not to fear, Phipps to the rescue! During the latest Ed-Venture, Creepy Night Crawlers, campers discovered that these night-time critters aren’t creepy at all, just misunderstood. Campers learned why nocturnal creatures come out at light, why many of these critters are beneficial, and how some can even make their own light!

To start off, campers learned that nocturnal creatures are awake at night because being nocturnal helps them to find food and hide from predators. Besides insects, there are many different mammals, birds and even reptiles that are awake at night! Campers observed that nocturnal animals have bodies that are adapted to being awake at night, such as an owl’s big eyes or a raccoon’s heightened sense of smell.  Then the creepy crawlers came out. Campers examined moths, roaches, fireflies, and other insect bodies to observe their adaptations.


A dead bug is not half as cool as a live one, so campers set off to catch their own. They laid traps in the Stove Room, buring small plastic containers in the dirt with a tiny amount of dog food in the bottom of each. Critters smell the bait and then fall into the trap, unable to get back out again. Campers left their traps to work for an hour, after which they found quite a few slugs and ants. They brought them back to the classroom for further observation, using magnifying glasses to see them better. Since they found so many slugs, they also compared the slug bodies to the bodies of our worms and then recorded all of their observations in their scientific journals.

While waiting for their traps to work, campers built their own nocturnal creatures out of cheese cubes, grapes, carrots and other healthy foods. Their snacks were not only nutritious, but creepy! Campers also learned about cockroaches, a Phipps favorite. Far from being disgusting, they are really beneficial. As nature’s garbage men, they help to keep it clean. Campers found out that roaches are one of the oldest families of insects – even older than the dinosaurs!


Finally, campers learned about bioluminescence. A wide variety of creatures create light with their bodies by using a chemical called luciferin. In the case of fireflies the luciferin combines with oxygen, which comes into their bodies through holes in their abdomens as they breathe, giving off a pale yellow or green light. These cells also have special crystals in them to reflect the light back away from the insect, making it easily seen. Fireflies can switch their lights on and off by breathing in and out. Campers observed fireflies in person  to learn more and watched a groovy lava lamp demonstration to understand how the chemical reaction works. They gave it glowing reviews!

Evening Ed-Ventures are temporarily suspended until the fall, but our summer camp registration is open! For a complete list of all our summer camp offerings, please visit our website.

Check out the slide show below for more pictures!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The above pictures were taken by our wonderful volunteer, Pam Russell.

March 15, 2013

Home Connections: Color Observers

by Melissa Harding


It may not feel like it, but spring is almost here. Daffodils and tulips are shooting tentative leaves up above the ground and the small, nodding heads of snowdrops are becoming a common sight. Soon, the world will be awash in the bright colors and scents of early spring and winter will seem like a distant memory. This time of year is muddy, warm and just asking to explored! One way to make the most of this time and to promote increased attention to nature is by using a color observer. Color observers are easy to make and incredibly effective at encouraging children of all ages to stop and really look at the world around them.

A color observer is a simple device that children can use to compare the colors they see in the world around them. We make them out of paint chips from the home improvement store; we gather different shades of one or several colors, punch a large hole in each and then bind them together with a ring. Children hold the color observer up to leaves, tree bark, flowers, and even the sky, trying to match what they see through the hole with a colored paint chip. The more choices you put in your color observer, the more closely it will match something in nature. For older children, we use paint chips with multiple colors per chip and make sure there are plenty of options. For younger children, a simple of rainbow of colors can be enough. It is up to you how simple or complex you would like to make your observer.


Using this tool encourages children to look closely at objects in nature. They begin to notice not just colors, but nuances in shading and texture. This is a great technique to develop observation skills, which are important skills to have. Scientists are great at observing and so are artists; children are naturally curious and tools like color observers help them to see both the science and the art in nature. Closely observing the natural world (and the man-made one, too!) helps children to better appreciate and understand it. It also shows them the beauty of nature, which creates a sense of place. As Rachel Carson wrote in A Sense of Wonder, “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which seeds must grow.”

Using a color observer is a fun activity to do together; make two and compare your guess with your child’s. You can also work together to create fun color-based art projects that use objects from nature. Find items that match all of the colors in your observer and then use them to make a nature weaving or a diorama. Create monochromatic display jars or match your paint chips to water colors and paint a nature picture. The options are endless!

For some more fun activities to do with paint chips, check out these links:
Paint Chip Matching GameInner Child Life (this is where we got the idea for our own color observers)
Fairy LoomsMoment to Moment
Paint Sample
Paint Chip GarlandChocolate Muffin Tree

The above pictures were taken by Christie Lawry.

March 14, 2013

March Inspire Speaker Series: Food for Big Thoughts

by Melissa Harding



“The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake.”
– First Lady Michelle Obama at the Let’s Move! launch, February, 2010

“Students shouldn’t have to leave their community to live, learn and earn in a better one.” Stephen Ritz

We have long anticipated this edition of our Inspire Speakers Series. It’s all about FOOD! That is, it’s about healthy food and healthy living in our homes, schools, businesses, and communities. Everyone – including parents, elected officials at all levels of government, schools, health care professionals, nonprofit and community-based organizations, and businesses – has a role to play in creating healthy and sustainable places by supporting access to affordable and nutritious food.

Access to healthy, affordable food in our schools: 95% of children attend school every day. Many children consume at least half of their daily calories at school. Food served at school may be the only food that many children eat regularly. More than 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program, and more than 12 million children participate in the School Breakfast Program. Serving healthy, nutritious food is more important than ever!

Access to healthy, affordable food in our communities: More than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods that are considered “food deserts” – communities that are more than a mile away from a supermarket with limited access to affordable, nutritious food. A recent 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that an estimated 49.1 million people, including 16.7 million children, lived in households that experienced food insecurity multiple times throughout the year.

National guest Stephen Ritz and his students have had a huge impact on their local community of the South Bronx, including:

  • Growing enough healthy, local produce to feed 450 South Bronx students
  • Funding and creating over 2,200 youth jobs with a living wage
  • Increasing school attendance for his students from 40% to 93%
  • Rooting the school’s green initiatives in literacy and common core standards in order to help all students graduate high school and be fully prepared to enter college and pursue post-secondary training

Stephen and his students will share their adventures and explain how we can make changes in the places where we live, work, learn and play. Check out his TED Talk to see what’s in store. And check out some photos of the Green Bronx Machine in action here. Learn more about Let’s Move! Pittsburgh, a collaborative of organizations, parents, and caregivers in southwestern Pennsylvania committed to leading children in our region toward a healthier future. Inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to curb childhood obesity through raised awareness about the benefits of healthy foods, decreased screen time and increased physical activity for children, the collaboration led by Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens aims to put solutions to this national problem locally.

Learn more about the speakers at

WHEN: Thursday, March 14th from 5:30 – 8 p.m.

WHERE: Special Events Hall, 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


For group rates and scholarship information, please contact Jenna Cramer.


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