Archive for May, 2013

May 31, 2013

The Fairchild Challenge at Phipps Awards: Celebrating a Year of Hard Work

by Melissa Harding

At the beginning of the school year, the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps charged local middle and high school students with the task of using all of their art, music, writing and photography skills to reimagine the way they think about environmental science. The Challenge invites students to investigate and engage with some of the most controversial contemporary topics in environmental science and devise imaginative and effective responses. This multi-disciplinary, standards-based outreach program is designed to give students the opportunity to shine in their areas of interest; from singing a song to writing beautiful prose, every student has a talent that can be utilized in this program.

Seven challenges later and over 1,300 students have participated in at least one, many of them more than one. The number of total students engaged in the Challenge, meaning the total number of occasions for participation, is over 2,800. Not only did these students get the benefits of learning more about both themselves and how they relate to the natural world, but they also had the chance to compete for prize money. The five highest scoring middle and high school teams win not just pride, but a check to be used in their school’s environmental science program. Past winners have purchased green houses, started new science projects and taken innovative field trips.

On two separate nights, we honored these students with awards ceremonies. Participants recieved their individual and group awards and learned which schools won the monetary prizes. After the ceremony, all students and family members were invited down to the new CSL classroom for healthy refreshments and a chance to see all of the challenge entries submitted throughout the school year. Both nights were lovely and festive occassions for students to bask in their accomplishments.

The Fairchild Challenge at Phipps 2012-13 winners are:

Middle School:
1st place ($750): Shaffer Elementary School/Woodland Hills Academy
2nd place ($500): Woodland Hills Junior High School and Academy 8th Grade
3rd place ($250): Mellon Middle School, St. Sylvester School and David E. Williams School

High School:
1st place ($1,000): Moon Area High School
2nd place ($500): Shaler Area High School
3rd place ($250): West Mifflin Area High School, Upper St. Claire High School, North Allegheny Senior High School

While only five school from each category are able to collect the prize money, all of the students who participated are winners for learning new things, facing tough issues and creating innovative solutions. We celebrate all of our participating schools and students for their hard work!

The above photo was taken by our volunteer, Laura.

May 29, 2013

Little Sprouts Flutter Through the Conservatory: Our Butterfly Friends

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Camp_5-17-13_46

Butterflies are beautiful creatures that are not only important to plants, but pretty fun to learn about too! Our Little Sprouts were especially excited to learn about these pollinating pals; in the latest Little Sprouts: Singles, Our Butterfly Friends, campers learned how butterflies help plants as they searched for them in the Butterfly Forest.

To begin, campers created butterfly sensory bags out of plastic bags, pipe cleaners and paint. Grown-ups helped campers to choose their favorite colors and squirt several dabs of paint into a zip-lock bag. Campers then smoothed their fingers over the colorful bags, creating a rainbow inside. When they were done, they twisted a pipe cleaner over the middle of the bag to create a butterfly friend. Campers also created butterflies out of coffee filters; campers colored a plain filter with markers and then clamped a clothes pin in the middle to create a different kind of critter.

Phipps Camp_5-17-13_8

Campers used both of their crafts in the lesson as they learned about butterfly body parts and the process of metamorphosis. Miss Hanna explained how a butterfly starts out as a larva, slowly growing until it creates a chrysalis, then finally becoming an adult butterfly. Campers acted out the process with their bodies and looked through butterfly goggles to pretend they were butterflies about to drink some nectar. Miss Hanna also read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle; campers got to munch on some spinach leaves and pretend they were hungry caterpillars, too!

After learning so much about their butterfly friends, campers took magnifying glasses through the Conservatory to find some live ones. They found quite a few fluttering in the Butterfly Forest and even stopped to find some flowers that these critters might like to eat! They used their fingers to find the pollen and nectar inside of the flowers and used their senses to explore some especially sweet-smelling blooms.

If you would like to learn more about butterflies with your own Little Sprout, check out these books:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Looking Closely Inside the Garden
by Frank Serafini
Butterflies in the Garden
by Carol Lerner
Becoming Butterflies
by Anne Rockwell and Megan Halsey

Our next Little Sprouts, We Like Dirt, is scheduled for June 10-13, from 10 am-noon. This camp is currently full, but if you would like to join our waiting list, please contact Sarah at (412)441-4442 ext. 3925.

For a complete list of all our Little Sprout offerings, including summer camp, please visit our website.

Check out the slide show below for more pictures!

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

May 28, 2013

Science Education Staff Out and About: Spring Conference Presentations

by Melissa Harding


At Phipps, we think that attending conferences is really valuable; being able to share what we do, as well as to learn from others, is something that we think is important. Our department educators have been out and about in the merry month of May, giving presentation on a number of different topics:

  • Christie Lawry presented with Richard Piacentini and Molly Steinwald at the Association of Children’s Museums conference on the evolving face of Phipps, specifically how our department uses multi-disciplinary learning to reach our students through their natural interests in things like art, photography and dance. Christie also spoke about how we assess and evaluate our programs to better align with our new institutional mission.
  • Amanda Joy spoke at the American Public Gardens association conference on how Phipps Botany in Action program connects real scientists to the general public and gives them the tools to effectively share their research. She also spoke about how the program has evolved over time to better connect with school students and young children.
  • Melissa Harding presented with Richard Piacentini and Molly Steinwald at the American Alliance of Museums conference as well; they talked from a multi-tiered perspective about how to evolve a museum setting to reinvent the relationship between people and nature. Melissa spoke about the importance of multidisciplinary learning and teaching the whole child through a combination of art and science.

It has been a busy month for us all! Check out some of these great organization and their websites to learn more about the work they do connecting people to the environment, teaching STEM skills and creating a broader appreciation for the work of museums and botanic gardens.

American Public Gardens Association
American Alliance of Museums
Association of Children’s Museums

The above photo was taken by Christie Lawry.

May 24, 2013

Bee Behavior Decoded: What is the Deal with Bees and Hexagons?

by Melissa Harding


We have been talking an awful lot about bees lately and here’s the reason: learning about these buzzing insects is important because, as pollinators, they are crucial to the success of many flowering plants. Without bees, we would not have many of the plants that sustain our lives every day. Not only are they important to our lives, but bees are pretty incredible creatures. From the way they dance to communicate with fellow bees to how they use their eyes to see patterns in ultra-violet light, bee behavior is pretty un-bee-lievable.

Robert Krulwich, National Public Radio blogger and co-star of WNYC’s Radiolab, investigates bees and bee behavior in this week’s Krulwich Wonders column. Specifically, he asks the question: why do bees like hexagons so much?

It turns out that this is a pretty tough mystery that has only recently been solved. The answer lies in the figure of physicist and writer Alan Lightman, who argues that bees build their honeycombs out of hexagons in the name of efficiency. Not only do bees always create hexagons, but they are considered to be “perfect hexagons”, meaning that all sides are of equal length. Lightman proposes a multi-faceted answer. First, whatever shapes the bees use need to fit together perfectly, creating a secure structure. Every cell is designed to fit seamlessly into the next one. This rules out random polygons and blobs, as well as shapes like circles and pentagons, since none of them fit together tightly. In fact, the only three shapes that fit this criteria are squares, triangles and hexagons. In addition, according to Lightman, the creation of the chosen shape needs to use as little wax as possible, since this is a valuable commodity within a beehive. Hexagons use less wax to create than both squares and triangles; a hexagon-based structure is both the most compact and the least resource intensive. Thus the hexagon wins!

Want to know more about the math behind hexagons and delve deeper into the world of bees? Read the original article here.

It’s not just bees that like patterns. Want to learn more about symmetry in nature? Check out Lightman’s most recent article, The Symmetrical Universe, in Orion Magazine.

The above photo was taken by Julia Petruska.

May 21, 2013

Pull Out Your Magnifying Glasses…the Cicadas are Coming!

by Melissa Harding


In 1996, millions of little cicada larvae, freshly hatched out of their eggs, jumped out of the trees where they were born and burrowed down deep into the soil to take a nap. Well, not to nap exactly, but rather to spend a peaceful spell quietly sucking the juices from tree roots. For the last seventeen years, they have been minding their own business and growing into adulthood. Soon, however, they are getting ready to come back to the surface. When they do, they will do it en masse.

What they really want to do is mate; for cicadas, this is the largest singles cruise ever. The males will clamber into the trees and signal to potential mates by snapping rigid plates on their abdomens. The females will coyly reply by clicking their wings together. All of this makes quite a racket, but doesn’t last for long. Potential matches will quickly find each other and mate, lay their eggs (up to 600 per female!), and then die shortly afterward. Upon hatching, the larvae will swan dive out of the trees and head for the soil, starting the seventeen year cycle all over again.

Cicadas may not be the most attractive insects on the planet, with their bulging red eyes and large size, but they are as harmless as kittens.  They don’t eat anything above ground, using their time in the sun solely for reproduction. They won’t bite or harm you in any way, though they are hapless fliers and one or two may run into your screen door. If this still makes you nervous, don’t worry – one group of critters that will be very excited about the cicadas are birds. It’s not very often that a buffet comes zooming out of ground and right onto their plates. They don’t know it yet, but they will be feasting like kings! This is the reason that cicadas all emerge at the same time; they are not particularly adept at defending themselves, being bad at flying and evading predation. However, millions of cicadas are more than the birds can possibly eat, leaving some left for reproduction.

These exciting critters will only be out and about for a short period of time. This is an excellent chance to grab a few and observe them with your child. Unlike other insects, they are utterly defenseless, so catching cicadas is safe and a great way to get a good look at them. You can watch their bodies move as they hum and buzz, observe the hard chiten of their exoskeletons and check out their beautiful eyes. Additionally, look for molted exoskeletons on trees and buildings; these are wonderful for observation as well. Remember, while it is a great science lesson to observe cicadas up close, it is important to always treat them gently and release them after you are done.

A number of news outlets have been running stories about the upcoming cicadas emergence; they are helpful resources to learn more about cicadas and their life spans, as well as some interesting research on cicada genomes. Did you know that the name for seventeen year cicadas is “magicicicadas”? Or that the ground needs to be exactly 64F before they emerge? Check out Carl Zimmer’s fabulous article in the New York Times, this fun piece by the Associated Press and this segment from Talk of the Nation. Watch one molt in this great piece from NPR’s Robert Krulwich!

The above photo is courtesy of the New York Times.

May 17, 2013

Weekend Nature Challenge: Rock Hunting

by Melissa Harding

DSCN2415A rock makes an excellent puppy.
They’re practically almost the same.
Except that a puppy’s rambunctious;
a rock is a little more tame.

It’s true that a rock’s not as hyper.
It may not chase after a ball.
And, often as not, when you call it,
it won’t even hear you at all.

And maybe it doesn’t roll over,
and isn’t excited to play, but
rocks always sit when you tell them,
and rocks really know how to stay.

So go ask your folks for a puppy,
and possibly that’s what you’ll get.
But, still, if you can’t have a puppy,
a rock is a pretty good pet.

It doesn’t annoy you with barking;
it quietly sits on a shelf.
A rock makes an excellent puppy.
That’s what I keep telling myself.
excerpted from a poem by Ken Nesbitt
If there is one thing in nature that is often overlooked, it is the humble rock. The job of a rock isn’t glamorous; it erodes over time, slowly adding minerals to the soil to help plants grow. It provides a home for slithering and crawling critters, acts as a sunbathing station for lizards, and provides a launching pad for moss and lichen. However, even though rocks aren’t glamorous, they are very important; without them, we would have no soil, no plants, no life. That’s why you can find rocks just about anywhere! This weekend, we challenge you and your family to scour your neighborhood for rocks. Not just any old rocks, but special ones that speak to you. Children love finding treasure and will jump at the challenge of looking for shiny rocks, sparkly rocks, small rocks, big rocks, red rocks or black rocks. Take a walk around your neighborhood together and collect your top two rocks to take home; they make good garden sentinels, animal habitats and maybe even good pets.

Take the next few days to explore your neighborhood and go rock hunting with your child. What colors, shapes or patterns did you discover? Did you see anything else of note? Tell us in the comments below.

The above picture was taken by Melissa Harding.

May 14, 2013

Home Connections: Raising Butterflies Indoors

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education_ Butterflies (1)You may have noticed that the butterflies are back for the summer. Cabbage whites are fluttering around your broccoli, looking to lay some eggs, and tiger swallowtails are looking for nectar in your flower beds. Butterflies are out of hibernation and looking for a good time. Adult butterflies spend their days doing two things – drinking nectar and laying eggs. These eggs are the start of the butterfly life cycle, which is both exciting and easy for even young children to understand. Beyond that, the life cycle has an air of mystery about it: What is really happening in that chrysalis? How does the butterfly get in there? While it is very enjoyable to watch them flutter around your backyard and to look for eggs and caterpillars on your plants, it can be even more fun to raise butterflies indoors. This is a great way to practice scientific thinking; your child will learn about the butterfly life cycle while utilizing his deductive and observation skills – and have a good time doing it!

To begin with, you will need some caterpillars. There are multiple online resources that provide you with both caterpillars and a butterfly habitat. It is best to purchase a butterfly species that is native to your area so that you can release them after you are done. Each kit come with care instructions to help you give your caterpillars a comfortable experience. Make sure to follow the directions regarding feeding and when to put your chrysalids in the larger butterfly habitat. You will also need magnifying glasses, a nature journal and any butterfly resources that may help your child learn more about butterflies. (See the bottom of this post for resource ideas).

Learn about Larvae
Begin your butterfly experiment by observing the caterpillars; set aside a set time each day to observe your critters together with your child. Caterpillars have interesting bodies; they have both “true” legs and little suction cups called “pro legs”. They also have an assortment of spines and patterns to confuse their predators. Take some time and observe your new friends. What colors are they? What end is the head and what end is the tail? Encourage your child to use his magnifying glass and learn about caterpillar anatomy. Caterpillars also engage in some pretty weird behaviors. Watch them walk upside-down on plant stems and use their jaws to gnaw away at leaves. The caterpillars you receive should go through several stages of molting, so see if you can catch them in the act! There are many exciting behaviors that your child can observe and record. Some of these  are so strange that it may prompt your child to start asking questions; this is a good time to give them resources to help fill the gaps in their knowledge, while encouraging them to wait and see if they can discern the answers by further watching.

Chrysalis Count-down
One of the most mysterious parts of the butterfly life cycle is the pupa stage, or the chrysalis. Before your caterpillar molts for the last time, it will hang in a “J” shape off one of the branches in its container. This is a great time to keep an eye on your caterpillar, as you may be lucky enough to watch it shed its skin and turn into a pupa. The skin that makes up the chrysalis is very different from the skin of the larva; it may be a completely different color. Often, this is to camouflage the vulnerable pupa from predators. Once your caterpillar is in the chrysalis, create a chart in your journal to count down the days until it emerges. It can often take up to two weeks for this to happen and there is very little else to observe during this time, so counting down the days is a fun way to keep your child engaged in the process.

butterfly phipps unplugged technology petruskaBeautiful Butterflies
Soon you will notice the chrysalis begin to shake. This is caused by the butterfly inside wiggling its way out! If you can catch this in action, it is an incredibly exciting sight. The butterfly will emerge slowly, covered in a sticky, red liquid; this is meconium, the remnants of the metamorphosis process. For the next several hours, the butterfly will flap its wings to dry them and fill them with blood. This is a very vulnerable time in the life of a butterfly; it is unable to fly until the wings are dry. Make sure to have a source of nectar in the habitat for your hungry butterfly to drink once it is ready. Have your child record this process if they are able. This is a rare opportunity for your child to get incredibly close to a butterfly; observe it carefully, maybe even drawing or painting it. Watch it unfurl its proboscis to drink nectar and use its antennae to smell. Count its legs and talk about the qualities of an insect. What an exciting time to observe!

Time to Fly
When you are done observing, it is time to release the butterflies. They will not be happy in their habitat for very long, nor will they be able to complete the butterfly life cycle without a mate. Releasing your butterflies can be a special occasion; reading a poem, sharing observations or even going to a special spot that you think the butterflies will like are all lovely ways to celebrate the life cycle. Slowly open the habitat and gently shoo the butterflies out into the open; they may falter a bit at first, but will quickly find their wings and soar away to find food and mates.

Here are some resources to help you get started on your butterfly raising journey:
Live caterpillars:
InsectLore and Carolina Biologicals are reputable places to get started; you can find a kit to match any price point. Try to purchase your caterpillars from a site that sells them for education, as opposed to weddings or events.
Taking care of your critters: This resource will give you details on how best to raise your new friends.
Butterfly gardening: Make your yard friendlier to all pollinators with these tips.
Monarch tagging: Monarch Watch is a citizen science program that helps scientists to track the migration movements of monarchs.

Phipps Science Education 71Field guides and other butterfly resources for all ages
Check some of these books out of your local library and learn more about your pollinating pals; check the card catalogue for related titles!
Butterflies through Binoculars by Jeffrey Glassberg
Butterflies of North America by Ken Kauffman
Kids Look and Learn: Butterflies! by Becky Wolf
A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston
Backyard Books: Are You a Butterfly? by Judy Allen
National Geographic Readers: Caterpillar to Butterfly by Laura Marsh
National Geographic Readers: Great Migrations Butterflies by Laura Marsh 

Watching this process gives children a sense of the complexity of the life cycle and makes them feel like they have been a part of helping their caterpillars to grow. A wonderful activity, growing butterflies can connect children to nature on multiple levels; if it peaked your child’s interest in butterflies, spend some time observing the ones that visit your yard. You can also go to your local botanical garden or children’s museum; these informal learning institutions often have pollinator gardens to attract butterflies of all kinds. Some even have butterfly rooms, like at Phipps, where butterflies are cultivated in large numbers. If your child’s interest in butterflies continues over the summer, consider raising another species of butterfly at home or taking part in a monarch tagging program at your local nature center. The sky is the limit!

The above pictures were taken by Christie Lawry and Julia Petruska.


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