Archive for September, 2013

September 30, 2013

High School Eco-Challenge Matches Teens with Scientists

by Melissa Harding


Last week, 80 high school students from local schools came to Phipps to participate in the Eco-Challenge, a multidisciplinary environmental outreach event co-run by Phipps and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3. Students worked in teams of four to learn about sustainability over the course of three challenges. In the first they worked with Jeff Ritter, Associate Professor of Communication, Media and Technology at La Roche College to create and record “commercials” for living a more sustainable life. In the next, they took a scavenger hunt around the Conservatory with the help of our wonderful, volunteer docents to learn about the ecology of the landscape and greenhouses. Finally, students got the chance to work with our visiting Botany in Action Fellows, interviewing them and creating posters about their chosen Fellow. This challenge is always a favorite every year; students love meeting real scientists and are always affected by the passion and excitement that our Fellows exude when they talk about their work.

To see a sample of the posters created for our Fellows and more images from the morning, check out the slideshow below. Winning posters for each Fellow were displayed at their tables during “Meet the Scientists” on Saturday.

Winning posters were:
Upper St. Claire High School: Brian Kaplan and Morgan Cook
Brentwood High School: Brianna Pail, Greg Casey, Matt Benedik, and Drew Gross
Knoch High School: Nida Ripper, Aiden Neigh, Will Moryas, and Josh Crassi
Upper St. Claire High School: Zach Christiansen and Sriparna Sen
Moon Area High School: Dana Murray, Aashka Shan, Jessica Peng, Emily Padgett, and Beth Eberts

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This event also serves as a kick-off for the Fairchild Challenge, a year-long environmental education program for both middle and high school students sponsored through the Fairchild Tropical and Botanic Gardens in Miami, Florida. In this multidisciplinary program, older students participate in a variety of sustainability-based “challenges” that focus on art, writing, music, and more. Schools choose to participate in one or all of seven challenges that take place over the course of the school year. At the end of the spring, monetary awards are given to the winning schools for use in their environmental science departments.

The above photos were taken by Science Education Staff and volunteer Pam Russell.

September 27, 2013

Weekend Nature Challenge: Pressing Flowers and Leaves

by Melissa Harding



The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is getting plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

– Emily Dickinson


September is a beautiful month – not quite summer, not quite fall.  Flowers are still growing, tomatoes are still on the vine and the sun is still warm enough to bask in, yet leaves are already falling, apples are ready to pick and everything seems to be flavored with cinnamon. This in-between month is a wonderful time to be outside. It is also a very colorful time, even more vibrant than summer; yellow goldenrod, purple blazing star and the red maples are everywhere! Formerly green trees are suddenly a rainbow of colors and even the sides of the road are bright and cheerful. However, while these colors are short-lived, they are also easy to preserve. This is a great time of year for collecting and pressing flowers and leaves.

This weekend, we challenge you and your family to a fall treasure hunt. More specifically, a collecting hunt for flowers and leaves. Find the brightest colors that you can and pick them to take home and preserve. This challenge combines two activities that kids love – outside treasure hunts and smooshing things together. Spend some time scouring the ground, roadside, bushes and trees for a rainbow of plants. While you’re at it, keep your eyes peeled for grasshoppers, groundhogs and other critters who may be out and about. When you get home, press your treasures in a phone book or a flower press; for a faster pressing time, put a heavy object like a dictionary or an iron on top of your press. Check every week until they are your desired crispiness and then use them to decorate your home, make art or just to observe!

Take the next few days to explore the your neighborhood for colorful plants. What did you notice about the plants that you found? Did you find any cool critters or other things of note? Tell us in the comments below.

The above photo was taken by Melissa Harding.

September 26, 2013

From the Ground Up: Museums Connect!

by Melissa Harding

phipps high school outreach underserved science education

“A place is a piece of the whole environment that has been claimed by feelings. Viewed simply as a life-support system, the earth is an environment. Viewed as a resource that sustains our humanity, the earth is a collection of places. We never speak, for example, of an environment we have known; it is always places we have known – and recall. We are homesick for places, we are reminded of places, it is the sounds and smells and sights of places which haunt us and against which we often measure our present.”
– Alan Gussow, American artist, teacher and conservationist

This fall, we are embarking on an exciting journey that explores the power of place –  the effect of place on our cultures, our food, our language.

As part of the Museums Connect program, made possible by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by the American Alliance of Museums, Phipps is partnering with the Gidan Makama Museums in Kano, Nigeria to provide an immersive experience for 15 local high school students in each city. Participating students will learn about nutrition, cooking and cultural food traditions by following local food from farm to table. They will be communicating with their partner institution and trying together to understand similarities and differences between American and Nigerian culture. This project will last from September to June, resulting in the creation of a community cookbook that will be designed and created by participating students; recipes in the book will represent all students in the group and share what they have learned. Additionally, students at Phipps will be hosting a community feast this spring to coincide with a visit from the Nigerian students.

Check out this video of the kids introducing themselves; this is their first communication with the Nigerian students:

To help them in creating their cookbook, students will meet each month for a Saturday workshop. Each workshop will involve activities designed to get them thinking critically about their food system and food culture. They will be planning and planting an edible garden at Phipps, cooking together, taking field trips to urban farms, and exploring ideas of sustainability and social justice through food. This program also has homework; students will be asked to use a different prompt each month to write a journal of their journey through the program, as well as to help them start collecting recipes for their book.

Our first monthly meeting was held last Saturday. Students began their day by getting better acquainted with each other and Phipps. They interviewed each other to both learn more about their group mates and to create a set of profiles to send to their Nigerian counterparts. They also spent some time journaling and cooking together; students made salsa using fresh vegetables from the gardens at Phipps and talked about the power of eating together to create community.

In the next few months, they will travel to Braddock Farms, a local urban farm worked by area teens, and cook together with Slow Food Pittsburgh. We can’t wait to learn along with these wonderful students – not only are they giving up their busy weekends to work with us, but their enthusiasm is amazing! We will share their journey, along with ours, every month. We will also ask you for your own thoughts about food and culture, here and on our Facebook page. Please share your insights with us!

Do you think that your own sense of place affects your food culture? Share your answers in the comments!

The above photo was taken by Cory Doman; the videos were taken by Hanna Mosca and Kate Borger.

September 26, 2013

Middle School Eco-Challenge Gets Students into Natural Beauty

by Melissa Harding


This morning 225 middle school students from over 25 local schools came to Phipps to participate in the Eco-Challenge, a multidisciplinary environmental outreach event co-run by Phipps and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3. Students worked in teams of four, learning about their “food carbon footprint”, creating beautiful mobiles out of plant materials, and going on a sustainability scavenger hunt through the Conservatory. The weather was beautiful and students had a great time working and learning both indoors and out. This was the second year the Eco-Challenge program has been offered to middle schools, bringing with it an incredible increase in attendance.

One of the most popular challenges involved using plant materials from Phipps to create beautiful mobiles. To see some of the gorgeous artwork that students made, check out the slideshow below!

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This event also serves as a kick-off for the Fairchild Challenge, a year-long environmental education program for both middle and high school students sponsored through the Fairchild Tropical and Botanic Gardens in Miami, Florida. In this multidisciplinary program, older students participate in a variety of sustainability-based “challenges” that focus on art, writing, music, and more. Schools choose to participate in one or all of seven challenges that take place over the course of the school year. At the end of the spring, monetary awards are given to the winning schools for use in their environmental science departments.

Tomorrow we welcome high school students to Phipps for their own Eco-Challenge for the fourth year in a row. It is a pleasure hosting these great kids every year and we are so excited to see the program grow!

The above photos were taken by Christie Lawry.

September 24, 2013

Research Update: What Are We Learning About Child Development So Far?

by Melissa Harding


Child development researchers conducting research in museums is part of a growing trend that allows families to take part in real science being done right in front of them. Parents can watch their child engage with a researcher and participate in “capital ‘S’ Science”, learn the methods of research, interact with real scientists and learn how current research is applicable to their family life. Children can contribute to the process of scientific discovery and understand how scientists look and act . In short, having researchers in museums helps to break down barriers between the public and scientists, increasing awareness of child development as a science and overall scientific literacy.

For the past year at Phipps, we have been working with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Cognitive Development Lab to provide a museum setting for their work.  CMU’s Cognitive Development Lab is interested in gaining a better understanding of “how children generalize knowledge they have to new situations, how children acquire language, what role language plays in knowledge generalization, how children maintain focused attention, and what role focused attention plays in acquisition of new knowledge.” So now is the time to ask, what kind of understanding has their research gained and how can it be used?

Several of the games that researchers have been playing at Phipps have been testing category-based reasoning. You may remember them from this previous article on research in museums:

IMG_0182The first, a pictures game conducted by doctoral student Karrie Godwin, investigates the factors that influence young children’s ability to make inductive inferences, or guesses based on probable connections. In particular, this study was interested in understanding the part that a child’s category knowledge and their perceptual knowledge (their perceived ideas of the similarities of objects) play in their inductive reasoning. In this study, children were shown three pictures – a target (or the category choice) and two test items that were potentially related to the target. For example, children might be shown a grey, fluffy-tailed cat as their target and then given the choice between an orange kitten or a fluffy, grey raccoon. The kitten matches the category of “cat”, which is a category-based match, while the raccoon looks very similar to the picture of the target and could be perceived to be the same, which is a perceptual match.  The children learn that the target object has a fictional property inside (e.g. fisp cells); they are then asked which of the other items they think has the same property as the target.

Results: The study results found that while 3 and 4-year olds are equally likely to pick either item, 5-year olds were more likely to pick the category match. This suggest that when it is difficult to differential between the given conceptual (previous category knowledge) and perceptual information (what they learn from their senses), young children are unable to resolve that difficulty. However, their ability to tell the difference improves between pre-school and kindergarten.
These findings were recently presented at the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society; Data collection from 2-year-old children is currently in progress.

The second category-based game, also conducted by doctoral student Karrie Godwin, is a game of synonyms. This study investigates how 4-year old children learn and reason with objects that are semantically similar (synonyms).   In this study, children were told about three objects hiding behind three doors, a target item and two test items. One of the target items was semantically similar and one was a lure, or a false answer. For example, if the target was “rock”, then a semantically similar item would be “stone”; sometimes the lure was semantically close, like “grass”, and sometimes it was semantically distant, like “boat”. As in the above study, the children are told that the target object has a fictional property inside and are then asked which of the other items they think has the same property as the target.

Results: When the lure was distant, children were more likely to differentiate the semantically similar item from lure than when the lure was closely related. This indicates that children are beginning to show some sensitivity to synonyms. Data collection for this study is on-going. To learn more, you can read a paper reporting results of a related study.

IMG_0157The last game that researchers played with our visitors also involved semantic development. This study, conducted by doctoral student Layla Unger, investigated the ways that children organize plants and animals based on a variety of different relationships between them. For example, there are many ways to organize a group of animals – where they live, what size they are, what color they are, what sounds they make, etc. This study was interested in understanding how easily children can go from only recognizing obvious relationships (physical attributes) to recognizing more subtle ones (biological grouping); it was also interested in whether a child can recognize that objects have a range of different relationships. Children played the Help Zibbo Game, in which they help Zibbo the Zookeeper organize plants and animals in his zoo. Using a grid to represent the zoo, children placed blocks representing different animals and plants on the game board based on their ideas of how they should be categorized. Researchers measured how close or far away children placed the pieces.

Results: Preliminary finding suggest that as soon as children can recognize relationships between items, they are able to understand those that are both easily observed and those that are more subtle. This research is still ongoing.

While it may seem that a lot of this research is looking for incredibly specific outcomes, there are many ways to generalize this knowledge. Category-based reasoning is important in the cognitive abilities of both adults and children; it is the base of much of our learning and functioning in life. Learning how children develop this skill helps us to better understand how they develop more complex social and cognitive skills, such as interacting with others and learning language. In addition, understanding how children categorize and reason is important for teachers because the more we can learn about how children develop, the better teachers we can be and the more developmentally appropriate curriculum can become. Parents can benefit from this information as well; developmental knowledge is helpful in understanding the actions and reactions of your child, as well as how to effectively communicate across the developmental divide.

Phipps is very excited to host the Cognitive Development Lab in the Conservatory for a second year, as well as to extend our partnership to other labs within the local area who are investigating similar ideas. We are proud to be contributing to an increase of knowledge and understanding and are looking forward to another great year of learning!

There is much more being done at the Cognitive Development Lab than talked about here; to learn more about the research being conducted by CMU’s Child Development Lab and all the great folks who do the research, check out their great website.

If you are local to Pittsburgh and would like to participate, check out this information for parents!

To read more about the importance of research in museums, check out this great post.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.

September 23, 2013

Little Sprouts Singles: We Heart Trees

by Melissa Harding


Last week there were Little Sprouts popping up everywhere at Phipps! It was the first Little Sprouts: Singles of the fall, We Heart Trees, and we had so much fun! In fact, we have been having so much fun with our Little Sprouts lately that we ran two sessions of our popular series for campers ages 2-3 and their grown-ups.

Campers created their own autumn tree using flower and leaf-shaped sponges to stamp leaves onto a cardboard trunk. After they were done, they played in our dirt and seed sensory bins. During the lesson, campers explored tree cookies, bark, acorns, leaves and pine needles with their grown-ups and learned why trees are important for people and animals, giving us things like food and shelter. Campers also learned about different animals that live in trees and read The Busy Tree by Jennifer Ward.

Finally, we went on a scavenger hunt through the Conservatory. With their grown-up’s help, campers used a picture check-list to look for the parts of a tree – roots, trunks, branches, leaves and berries. Campers explored trees from all over the world in our Tropical Forest and outside in the gardens!


If you want to read some great stories about trees with your own Little Sprout, check out these books:
Little Mouse’s Big Secret by Eric Battut
Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis
Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf by Lois Ehlert
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
The Apple Pie Tree by Zoe Hall

Check out more pictures from Little Sprouts in the slide show below!

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Our next Little Sprouts Singles program, My Favorite Fruits, is scheduled for October 24 and 25, 10:30 am-noon.  We also offering a four-week Little Sprouts, We Heart Critters, Mondays in October, 10:30am-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 season camp offerings, please visit our website. We hope to see you there!

The above pictures were taken by Christie Lawry and Hanna Mosca.

September 20, 2013

Your Backyard Could be Famous: Join the Great Nature Project!

by Melissa Harding


This year, National Geographic is celebrating its 125th anniversary, which is pretty incredible. Nat Geo, as it is often affectionately called, is an organization known not just for its reporting, but for its pictures. From breathtaking shots of far away lands to startling close-ups of insect eyes, the photographers at National Geographic are some of the best in the world, able to capture images that are truly worth a thousand words. However, next week, they want to turn the reigns over to you! The Great Nature Project is a program created by National Geographic to get people outside and taking pictures of all the great plants and animals in their lives. Meant to be a “worldwide celebration of the planet and its wonders”. This is not just a program for kids, but for people of all ages, all around the world. The goal of the project is to increase awareness and appreciation for the natural world through art. Together, this project hopes to create a  “global snapshot of the Earth’s incredible biodiversity”.

The Great Nature Project is a weeklong contest – photos can be submitted from September 21-29, 2013.You can upload your photos to Twitter, Instagram, or Flickr (kids who are 13 or under should upload their photos to National Geographic’s Kids  “My Shot“), using the hashtag #GreatNature. Add the #animal tag to any of your animal pictures as well. In addition to increasing nature appreciation, this is also an incredible opportunity for some serious citizen science! A community of scientists and other nature experts would love to help you identify the species that you have photographed; join the Great Nature Project on Project Noah, iNaturalist, or iSpot to learn more about the subjects of your photos.

The Great Nature Project is both a great way to learn more about science through art and a fun project for families, schools, youth groups or scouts. Go outside today and take some awesome pictures of your backyard and the critter and plants that live there. Feeling like an adventure? Go to your local park or green space and explore – you never know what you might find!

To learn more about The Great Nature Project, including how to join and submit your pictures, check out the Nat Geo website. You can also check out some of the collections curated by Nat Geo explorers and photographers!

To learn about citizen science projects that your family will love, check out this post. Or this one.

Why is using art in science important? Check out this post!

The above photo was taken by Cory Doman.

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