Archive for April, 2013

April 30, 2013

Follow the Fellows: Learning How Invasive Plants Affect Butterfly Populations

by Melissa Harding

Davis head photo new

The Botany in Action Fellowship program at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens fosters the development of a next generation of plant-based scientists who are committed, first, to excellent research, and second, to educational outreach. Open to PhD students enrolled at US graduate institutions and conducting plant-based scientific field research, the BIA program provides Fellows with funding for use towards field 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 research in locales from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Illinois to Nepal, India, and Brazil. Their work covers topics ranging from the role of green roofs in urban biodiversity and the influence of heavy metal soil pollution on plants and pollinators to identification of plants used by healers that protect brain cells from the progression of Parkinson’s disease

November’s featured fellow is Samantha Davis. Samantha is PhD student at Wright State University in Ohio. She is researching how garlic mustard, an invasive plant that occurs all over the northeast, is influencing a rare butterfly, the West Virginia White. Garlic mustard is ruining many of our natural areas. Sam’s work can help discover how and why garlic mustard affects our ecosystem, and what we can do to prevent more damage.

Read an update on Sam’s research and life as a scientist at the Botany In Action website! You can also learn more about her work on her blog, Tracking the West Virgina White.

You can follow Sam and all of the BIA as they study plants across the US and across the world at the Follow the Fellows section of our Botany In Action website.

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

The above image was provided by Samantha Davis.

April 26, 2013

Speak Out: Middle School Challenge #5 of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps

by Melissa Harding

Cartoon 1

During the latest challenge of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps, participants were asked to speak up about an important environmental issue affecting the region. They were given the option of either writing a letter to the editor or creating a cartoon to illustrate their point. Participants in the letter writing challenge were asked to think critically about why their chosen problem affects western Pennsylvania and ways that local citizens can help mitigate its impact. They also were asked to include informational facts that they found through their research. The cartoonists were required to create a cartoon composed of original student artwork and to write a 200-word essay accompanying their drawing. In total, 277 middle school students participated in this challenge. There were so many entries that the judges were working in overtime to find the winner! All of the entries were wonderful, tackling such hard topics as fracking, pollution, water run-off and green energy.

Cartoon 2In the essay category, the winning entry was from a student at Shaffer Elementary concerned about invasive species. Citing zebra mussels, garlic mustard and emerald ash borer as examples, this student not only outlined the reasons that these organisms are spreading, but also gave many great examples of ways to eliminate these intruders. From reminding boaters to scrape their hulls to pulling out garlic mustard before it seeds, this letter was positive and provided an empowering message to its readers. “As you can tell, all of these invasive species are dangerous and harmful to the ecosystems of western Pennsylvania! So let’s stick together and take action to eradicate these invaders!”

The second place essay, from a student attending Sewickley Academy, tackled the topic of pollution in the Ohio River, one of the top ten most polluted rivers in America. Citing sewage overflow as the main culprit, the author describes the many plants and animals who make their homes along or in the river and why these are adversely affected. “In the Ohio River there used to be at least 80 species of mussels that were recorded to be healthily living. But now, there are only 50 species left, out of which five are endangered and close to extinction.” Her solution, increased funds for projects related to the decrease of sewage overflow, is a good idea for both the environment and the people who live near and drink from the river.

Cartoon 3In the cartoon category, the winning entry was submitted by a student from Mellon Middle School regarding global warming. Her cartoon depicts two children walking along wearing shorts and eating ice cream, both talking about how unbelievable it is that winter used to be cold. Her accompanying letter cites the fact that Pennsylvania is the third in the nation in terms of global warming pollution. “If everyone sees the current problems, then we might have a fighting chance of turning the whole thing around. It might take a decade, two or probably more, but it can be accomplished.”

The second place winner, submitted by a student from Shaffer Elementary, tackled the issue of zebra mussels crowding out native mussels in our regions three rivers. Her cartoon depicts a zebra flexing its muscles and dressed in a military uniform, saying “Atten-hut! Time to invade western Pennsylvania!” while streams of mussels jump out of a ship and into the water. Her accompanying letter warns of the endangerment of native mussels and recommends that boaters clean their boats to help fix the problem.”Boaters of western Pennsylvania need to take action now to prevent Zebra mussels from causing more damage than they already have. All parts of your boat should be thoroughly washed each time you pull it from the water. You should also inform others about the zebra mussel issue and tell them to wash their boats before it is too late!”

While there can only be three winners for each portion of the challenge, all of these students are winners for learning how to articulately express their environmental concerns to the general public. Students from all three winning schools will be interviewed on the Saturday Light Brigade this Saturday, April 27, at 10:35am. The Saturday Light Brigade can be heard every Saturday morning on WRCT 88.3 FM. It also streams live at where the interview will be archived under Neighborhood Voices.

The above photos were taken by Kate Borger.

April 25, 2013

Be a Botanist: Conservatory Visitors Practice Scientific Thinking

by Melissa Harding

2013-04-18 22.03.34One of the best ways to learn science is through active involvement. This kind of learning, through observation and sensory experience, is something that we strive for with all of our science education offerings. Through our field trip and seasonal camp programs, we try to engage our students in a way of learning science that is immersive and fun yet still teaches the principles of scientific thought. Another way that we promote this is through our Botany in Action (BIA) program. BIA is a fellowship program at Phipps that 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 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.

The BIA program is a great way to not only help fund important research, but increase public exposure to real scientists. One new way that we are trying to engage the public with the Fellows is through the Be a Botanist program, which offers a series of self-guided science activities for Conservatory visitors based on our BIA Fellows’ work in the field. These fun activities allow participants to use a diversity of methods to collect data and answer questions. Located in the research station of the Tropical Forest, the Be a Botanist program provides participants with a booklet full of research-related questions and different means of finding the answers, from a binder of mock interviews to petri dishes of soil. This program is meant to give participants a sense of the various ways that science happens as well as to encourage the use of the scientific method to find solutions. When completed, the booklets can be turned in to the gift shop for a prize – a magnifying glass to further encourage observation skills.

2013-04-18 22.04.09Highlighting work done by soil scientist George Meindl, invasive plant expert Samantha Davis, ethnobotanists Sushma Shrestha and Aurelie Jacquet, and green roof botanist Kelly Ksizek, the Be a Botanist program also allows visitors to get a better sense of the kinds of research being funded through the BIA program and why this research matters. Hopefully, some of our young visitors will be inspired by their work and choose a scientific path for themselves!

To learn more about the Botany in Action program, check out the BIA website.

You can also stay up to date on our Fellows at the Botany in Action section of this blog and the Follow the Fellows section of the BIA website.

The above photos were taken by Melissa Harding.

April 23, 2013

Home Connections: Giving Glass Jars a New Life

by Melissa Harding

copyright molly steinwald

In honor of Earth Day, April’s Home Connections will detail how our department uses recycled materials to enhance our programming and teach sustainability.

In last week’s Home Connections post, we talked about how our department utilizes reused materials in our programming; in many of our programs, students make crafts from reused and repurposed materials. Additionally, we repurpose items for program props, storage and general creative use. Reusing materials not only saves resources and money, but it is a great way to teach by example.

In addition to plastic and cardboard, we also like to repurpose glass jars. Many foods that we eat come in glass jars: pickles, olives and spaghetti sauce to name a few. These containers are recyclable, but we prefer to reuse them at least one more time before they are destined for the curb. Glass containers are waterproof, sealed, and often come with a lid. They are clear, meaning that you can see through them and light can penetrate inside. An empty glass jar is just a craft waiting to happen. Here are some ways that we use these items at Phipps; hopefully you will be inspired to reuse some of the glass in your own life:

Terrariums are not only on trend, but are a great way to give kids the experience of having their own greenhouses. Typically a terrarium is a closed ecosystem, with the water recycling itself over and over again. Any clear glass container will do; finding jars that are uniquely shaped or particularly beautiful is fun, but a spaghetti sauce jar works just fine as well. Children love to take home plants; planting a beautiful terrarium garden is a great way to combine the fun of taking home a plant with learning about tropical ecosystems, the water cycle and clean air plants. Not every terrarium has to have a lid; in fact, sometimes it is better to leave the lid off if you are planting anything that would easily die from overwatering.  Plant selection is important; some of our favorite plants to put in a terrarium with children are: mosses, spider plants, Pothos, and Philodendron.

To make your own terrarium, you will need: a glass jar (lid optional), activated charcoal (available in pet stores near the aquarium section), potting soil, plants, small stones, and other decorative objects (optional). To begin, fill an inch of the bottom of a clean jar with charcoal. Next, layer some small stones over the charcoal, followed by a layer of potting soil; this is necessary to assure proper drainage. Plant your plants and give them a small drink of water. Remember, the water that you add will remain in the terrarium until you open the lid, so just add a little. Finally, add any decorative objects you wish and close the lid. This is a great time to get creative – anything that will not decay in a wet environment is perfect for adding to a terrarium; plastic animals are a favorite of ours. You can also get creative by decorating the lid or the jar itself, taking care not to block too much of the light.

IMG_1587Pickles and Mung Beans
In all of our cooking camps, every camper makes homemade pickles and sprouts a jar of mung beans. Glass jars are perfect for this because they are easily reused and sanitized for each new camp, they are clear to let in light, and they don’t hold on to odors or tastes. These are fun activities that the campers can replicate at home and each illustrates a different lesson. When making pickles, campers learn how vinegar and salt preserves produce. When sprouting beans, they learn how a seed germinates. To top it off, both of these activities have delicious results!

To make your own pickles, you will need: a glass jar with lid, 1 cup vinegar, 1/8 cup salt, 1 quart water,1/4 cup sugar, 2 cloves of peeled garlic, cucumber slices, and dill (optional).  Place salt and sugar into your jar, adding a bit of warm water and stirring until dissolved.  Add dill, cucumber slices and garlic to jar. Fill jar with vinegar and the rest of the water. Replace the lid and swirl to mix. Put in the refrigerator, swirling each day to mix. After a week, check your pickles and see if they are done to your satisfaction. These pickles will be sweet and dilly and are best eaten slightly crunchy.

To sprout your own mung beans, you will need: a glass jar, dried mung beans, small square of cheese cloth, and a rubber band. Place a handful of mung beans into the bottom of your jar. Cover the opening with cheese cloth, holding it in place with a rubber band. Hold jar under the faucet and run water into it; swirl to moisten all seeds and then invert to let all the water run out. Place your jar in a dark place to germinate. Every day, check your beans and repeat the watering process. In several days, you will have sprouts. You can eat them on sandwiches or just by themselves!

March_1_13_camp_19Lava Lamps
There are many interesting organisms that are bioluminescent, such as lightning bugs, glow worms and fox-fire fungus. This property is fun to teach about, as every child loves things that glow in the dark. One way to illustrate how chemicals combine inside of these critters to make them glow is to create a lava lamp. Using oil, denture cleaner and food coloring, lava lamps show how these reactions take place. Glass jars are perfect for this because they seal well and are clear, making it easy to watch the reaction inside.

To make your own lava lamp, you will need: small glass jar with lid, canola oil, water, denture cleaner tablet, blue or green food coloring, and a flashlight. To begin, fill you jar 3/4 of the way full of oil. Add 20 drops of food coloring  and then fill up your jar with water, leaving an inch free at the top. Add a denture tablet and close immediately. Invert the jar a few times to mix. Turn off the lights and shine a flashlight through the jar. The mixture inside will bubble as the tablet dissolves; shining the light through the jar makes it look like a real lava lamp. Repeat as desired!

People have reused glass jars as storage containers for many years. A glass jar is perfect for storing buttons, nails or any other small items. They are clear, so you will always know what is inside them, and they look beautiful lined up on a shelf. Some people store all of the grains and pastas in their pantry in glass jars; it’s both trendy and sustainable!


Hopefully some of these fun ideas will help you think about ways to repurpose the glass jars in your own home. Once you start thinking of the items in your recycle bin as resources instead of trash, anything is possible!

For more ideas, check out Eight Ways to Reuse Glass Jars Around the House at Simple Homemade or 50 Ways to Re-purpose and Reuse Glass Jars at By Stephanie Lynn.

If you are interested in creating a fancy terrarium, check out Terrarium Ideas and Inspiration at By Stephanie Lynn. Very pretty!

The above photos were taken by Molly Steinwald, Christie Lawry and Pam Russell.

April 22, 2013

Making an Environmental Commitment to Our Children

by Melissa Harding

 Phipps Science Education_Little Sprouts Seasons (9)

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” – Fred Rogers

Earth Day is an annual reminder that as part of the natural world, it is our duty to be good stewards and help protect the planet on which we live. Not only does the Earth sustain us, but so too our children and their children – all future generations. Just as a community is only as healthy as its children, children are only as healthy as their environment. This space is dedicated to helping caregivers and educators create the next generation of successful, civically engaged citizens, a task largely made possible through creating connections with the people, places and green spaces that make up a community. Today is a good day to remember that we don’t conserve the environment for ourselves, but for those who come after us.

In honor of Earth Day, the US Environmental Protection Agency is offering the Pick 5 Challenge – commit to at least five actions to reduce your resource use and celebrate the natural world. Check out the excellent links in the list below and try to find some options that you and your family can commit to for the next year.

carn plantChoose from actions related to:

At Home and in the Garden
At Work
At School
While Shopping
In Your Community
On the Road

Did you find a new way that you can reduce, reuse or recycle? Please share your resolutions in the comments below.

“One of the greatest dignities of humankind is that each successive generation is invested in the welfare of each new generation.” – Fred Rogers

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

April 19, 2013

Weekend Nature Challenge: What’s Blooming in Your Neighborhood?

by Melissa Harding

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The springtime’s pallid landscape
Will glow like bright bouquet,
Though drifted deep in parian
The village lies today.

The lilacs, bending many a year,
With purple load will hang;
The bees will not forget the tune
Their old forefathers sang.

The rose will redden in the bog,
The aster on the hill
Her everlasting fashion set,
The covenant gentians frill,

Till summer folds her miracle
As women do their gown,
Or priests adjust the symbols
When sacrament in done.

Emily Dickinson

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If March went out like a lion, then April came in like a lamb.  Pittsburgh has been floating through this month on balmy breezes! All of this warmth and sunshine means that spring flowers have been waking up quickly; crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths are popping open all over the place. A sea of yellow and purple has drifted over our city’s front yards and flower barrels. This weekend, we would like challenge you and your family to investigate the flowers that are blooming in your own neighborhood. Are there any dogwood trees or redbuds in bloom? How about dandilions popping up through the grass? Take a walk through your community together and look closely for signs of forming buds and blooming flowers.

Take the next few days to explore your neighborhood and see what’s in bloom. What flowers did you discover with your child? Did you see anything else of note? Tell us in the comments below.

The above picture was taken by Melissa Harding in her front yard.

April 18, 2013

Celebrating National Poetry Month: Using Poetry to Connect Children and Nature

by Melissa Harding

cherry blossoms 2

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. – T.S. Eliot

April is National Poetry Month, a celebration of the richness that poetry gives to our lives. Though some may think that poetry is becoming irrelevant in our modern world, there are many more who can tell you the impact that writing or reading poetry has on their lives. In fact, poetry is an important touchstone to reality in the digital era in which we live. A poem is a powerful thing – some poems can target your soul and never let go; the same poem can give one person a feeling of peace and yet stir the passions of another. To quote Plato, “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” It truly does deserve its own month of celebration.

As part of a special series focusing on modern poetry, National Public Radio offered its listeners a chance to write and submit their own poems celebrating Washington, D.C’s famous cherry blossoms in bloom. After receiving hundred of submissions, twenty of the best were selected for reprint; the three best poems were used as the inspiration for several short films.

Here are several winning entries, in no particular order:

cherry blossom 2park bench take-away
the sky and cherry blossoms
in a cup of tea
— Paul Conneally

the petals fall from
an evening cherry blossom
she kisses him first
— Jenni L. Backs

Settled on a bench
In the lilting fragrance
of cherry blossoms
— Ric Cochran

Wet April morning–
Windshield wiper blades
heavy with cherry blossoms.
— Joel Dias-Porter

streetlamps in the haze …
this morning the stone lions
catch cherry blossoms
— Judy Totts


Just as anyone who observes the world around them is a naturalist, so too is anyone who writes a poem a poet. Writing poetry is a wonderful way to connect to nature. While it may be difficult to go outside and draw a bird that you observe, it is very easy to write a short poem about it. If you or your child are feeling intimidated by the idea of nature journaling, try writing short poems about your time outside. Don’t worry about sounding like Walt Whitman, a poem doesn’t have to be an ode to a tree. It can anything, even humorous! Poems don’t have to rhyme and can be short or long; they can be about a bird or the gum on your shoe. Children in particular may enjoy writing poems about things that are gross, weird or funny. A poem describing the wonders of rabbit poop in the yard may seem silly, but writing it requires important time spent observing.

Poetry can help to express how nature makes you feel, what you experience with your senses and what you think about your time outside; it can clarify your experience in a unique way. In fact, writing poetry about nature can be a gateway to expressing other ideas as well; poetry can be a great way for children to express things that are difficult or scary. It can be a tool to help you understand your child’s feelings as well as a way for him or her to share openly with you. Additionally, poetry is a great introduction to reading for young children and may be useful in converting reluctant readers into avid ones. The poems of Shel Silverstein are silly and fun – perfect for a child who thinks reading is boring. Finally, poems make lovely gifts; tuck one in a library book before you return it or mail one in a card. This is a great way for your child to practice random acts of kindness towards others; it is really enjoyable to sneak poems into odd places with the hope of making someone else’s day.

In short, poetry is a great tool to keep in your nature journaling toolbox as well as in your life. Be open to the idea that a poem can be anything and anywhere; the sky is the limit when writing a poem. Remember, “You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some of it with you.” (Joseph Joubert)

If you want to get started, try some of these easy tips for writing poems with your child:
1. Exaggeration Poem: Write a crazy poem that exaggerates the attributes of an object to great lengths.
2. List Poem: Make your poem a list of all the neat things that you see, attributes of a subject, or thing you feel.
3. Stretchy Metaphor: Find five verbs and five nouns from one subject area, like nature, and use them to write about another subject, like school.
4. Point of View Poem: Write a poem from the point of view of another object, like a plant or a bird.
5. Haiku: A haiku is a three line poem with 5 syllables on the first line, 7 on the second, and 5 on the last.
6. Weather Poem: Start each line of your poem with the same phrase, like “When it rains” or “When it’s cold outside”.

To read more cherry blossom haikus and watch the accompanying videos, check out NPR’s article.

If you are looking for other ways to celebrate National Poetry Month or incorporate more poetry into your life, check out these ideas from The Academy of American Poets. Try writing a poem on the pavement or giving a poem to someone you love!

The above photos of cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C.  are courtesy of NPR.


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