Archive for February, 2014

February 28, 2014

Weekend Nature Challenge: Duck Watching

by Melissa Harding



Behold the duck.
It does not cluck.
A cluck it lacks.
It quacks.
It is specially fond
Of a puddle or pond.
When it dines or sups,
It bottoms ups.

Ogden Nash
As winter is slowly starting to leave, and we look forward to spring, we are not the only ones that are making a note of the change in the season. Bird migration is starting to heat up as well. In the spring, the lengthening days trigger hormonal changes in the birds that prompt northward migration. While it is still a little early to be seeing warblers and blue birds, there is one particular kind of bird that starts its migrations early: ducks. Ducks, geese, and other waterfowl migrate south in the winter to warmer areas in search of food and habitat. The pathway that they choose is an instinctive one that follows a combination of geographic landmarks, celestial signs and magnetic fields. In Pennsylvania, many of the waterfowl that migrate through our state are following the Atlantic pathway, a 3,000 mile stretch that goes from the Arctic tundra of the Baffin island to the Caribbean. The most densely-traveled of all pathways, the annual migration brings us a whole host of fabulous birds to see.

This weekend, we challenge you and your family to find some migrating ducks. This is easier than you might think; as ducks fly thousands of miles, they seek surface waters such as lakes, rivers and ponds to rest. This is especially true after a storm. To find some ducks, all you need to do is find some water. While you may run into some mallards, a common species that often over winters here, you will also find a ton of new duck species that you may have never seen before. Buffleheads, canvasbacks, and more! Take your binoculars and a bird guide (or check out Cornell’s awesome online bird guide). Try making up ducks calls and try to draw the ones you can see in your nature journal. Even if you don’t know what each duck is called, seeing the massive rafts of floating ducks is an amazing sight for sure. You will be amazed at how many gorgeous birds there are just minutes away and so will your family!

Take the next few days to explore the ducks at a body of water near your home or favorite green space. What birds did you notice? Did you observe any other things of note? Tell us in the comments below.

The photo of hooded merganser above is used courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

February 26, 2014

Explaining Color to 11 Year-olds: Why Science Communication Matters

by Melissa Harding

Why is the sky blue? Does the color blue look the same to everyone? These are some fundamentally puzzling questions to be sure. It can be difficult to explain and understand abstract scientific concepts like these, especially to children. One organization that is attempting to solve this problem, or at least encourage scientists to think more about it, is The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (yes, that Alan Alda). The Alda Center is sponsoring the third year of its Flame Challenge, a contest pitting scientists against each other to see who can best communicate a particular scientific topic to a huge panel of 11 year-old judges. Over 20,000 11 year-old judges, that is. The Challenge stems from Alda’s childhood pondering over the question: What is a flame? Alda’s teacher at the time answered with “oxidation”, which was truly unhelpful to say the least. Children today ask many of those same questions and may have the same kind of trouble getting real answers. The Flame Challenge encourages scientists to create the best possible way of explaining these complex concepts to a difficult audience and helps children get the answers they want.

To choose this year’s challenge question, The Alda Center collected over 800 questions from children all over the world. Color was a recurrent theme, so the question “What is color?” was chosen. Scientists can submit their answers in video, writing or graphics. The Alda Center provides some guidelines for scientists and a very helpful video entitled “Meet an 11 year-old”. Students advise scientists to remember than they are “eleven, not seven”; while they enjoy humor, they do not care for things that are silly or condescending. This is important, because it is tempting to talk down to children instead of just talking to them. Unfortunately for the scientists who make that mistake, the judges are pretty quick to catch them in the act. After being screened for accuracy, the submissions are judged by students all over the world using a standardized rubric and best one is chosen to be the winner.

Alda started this competition to get scientists engaged in effective communication; this is because bad science communication results in scientific illiteracy. It does no one any good to keep the stellar research that is being done stuck in the scientific community. Discoveries are made and published in scientific journals; these journal articles are read by other scientists, but the information they contain rarely makes it to the general public.  A mere 0.013–0.34% of scientific journal articles receive coverage by the mass media.  Non-health related research such as ecology and botany receive even less media attention with only 0.001–0.005% of research articles in these fields receiving coverage. Sometimes this work is very specialized, sometimes it is perceived as irrelevant, or sometimes it is difficult to understand; most of it is not making it to the public. This results in a poor understanding of what a scientist is does. On the other hand, good communication can create a public excited for more knowledge! It encourages life-long learning and a better understanding of the scientific process. It is able, on a broader level, to increase the level of public discourse on issues where scientific concepts affect legislative policy.

In addition to creating a group of scientists who can communicate about their work, The Flame Challenge also has the wonderful side effect of getting kids excited about science. This is a pretty big deal, seeing as research shows that as they age, students have a declining engagement with school in general. These two things go hand in hand; if scientists are more effective communicators of their research and how it applies to real life, then students will be more receptive. There is plenty of evidence showing that students want to engage with things that are real.  Project-based learning, getting students involved in current scientific research, and working on real problems are proven strategies for increasing overall engagement in science. Similarly, effective science communication is able to inform an audience and spark an interest. Effective communication inspires students to pursue STEM careers and develop a passion for life-long learning.

We see this with our Botany in Action Fellows when they speak to students; by communicating their love for science and showing why their research matters in the real world, the Fellows inspire many of the students they speak with to dig deeper into their own passions. They are helping to create a future generation of biologists, chemists, physicists and more. So are projects like those done by The Alda Center and a whole host of other organizations that recognize the importance of informed and excited students. Understanding the best ways to communicate research has repercussions far beyond schools, but starting there is a way to ensure that there are future scientists at all.

To learn more about the Flame Challenge, check out this great link.

To learn more about the public disconnect with scientists and research, check out this blog post.

The above videos are courtesy of the Alda Center for Communicating Science.

February 24, 2014

Little Sprouts: Our Tropical Adventure

by Melissa Harding


When it’s cold outside, there is no better place to be than in our Tropical Forest. It feels like being on vacation – warm, humid and wonderfully fragrant. Our Little Sprouts agree; in the latest Little Sprouts: Singles, Our Tropical Adventure, campers went on an expedition deep into the heart of our Tropical Forest to learn more about rainforests. Campers learned why rainforests are so wet and hot, as well what plants and animals live there.

To begin, campers made tropical fish, covering them with tissue paper “scales” and decorated nametags shaped like cameras to use during their impending exploration. They also had time to observe colorful rainforest fruits and play with books, puzzles and sensory bins after they finished their crafts. During the lesson, campers learned that the rainforest is really rainy and that plants love it there. They learned about animals that live in the jungle by reading a fun rainforest story. Campers hopped like frogs, growled like jaguars and crowed like toucans!

After all this learning, campers were ready to explore. Using their cameras, they took “pictures” of exciting rainforest plants. They used their ears to listen for animal noises and their noses to smell fragrant flowers. Upon their return, each camper planted a tropical plant to take home. Campers planted Philodendron, a common foliage plant that lives in the understory of the rainforest. These plants also help to clean the air, which is why they are such great houseplants!

To see more pictures from camp, check out the slideshow below:

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If you want to learn about the rainforest with your own Little Sprout, here are some great story suggestions:
“Slowly, Slowly, Slowly” said the Sloth by Eric Carle,
The Umbrella by Jan Brett
Way Up High in a Tall Green Tree by Jan Peck and Valerie Petrone
The Rainforest Grew All Around by Susan Mitchell and Connie McLellan

Our next Little Sprouts Singles program, My Favorite Flowers, is scheduled for March 20 and 21, 10:30 am-noon. To register, 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.

The above pictures were all taken by Science Education Staff and volunteers.

February 21, 2014

Girl Scout Day at Phipps!

by Melissa Harding


Our second annual Girl Scout Day, Blossoming Badges at Phipps, was a great success! Over ninety Brownie Girl Scouts, parents and troop leaders met at Phipps to earn three badges: Senses, Household Elf and Bugs. With the help of our many wonderful volunteers and Matt Quenaudon, our resident insect expert, the girls learned how to be thoughtful scientists through three multidisciplinary programs.

The first program, Senses, focused on the power of observation. During this guided tour, the girls were each given a scavenger hunt and told to use their senses of sight and touch to find different plants and exhibits in the Conservatory. They also stopped at stations to utilize their remaining senses, learning about specific plants along the way. The girls used their ears to observe the sounds of the Conservatory and their noses to guess secret scents like chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg and coffee. Finally, they tasted bitter, salty, sweet and sour plants to learn about the parts of the tongue.


The second program, Bugs, focused on the importance of insects in the ecosystem. The girls met some yellow-striped, tropical millipedes and learned how they are beneficial in the soil; after this, they each got to release one back into the Tropical Forest to do its good work. Next, the girls examined praying mantis egg cases and the eggs inside. Finally, they journeyed to the Stove Room and observed a batch of newly-hatched praying matises, holding them and examining them with magnifying glasses.

The third program, Household Elf, focused on ways that the girls can help their homes be safe, happy and healthy. They learned about the importance of saving energy and water; the girls came up with many different ways that they could help out with that in their own homes, from turning off the lights when they leave a room to saving water while they brush their teeth. To remind them of these ideas, they made light switch covers with conservation messages to take home and stick on their switch plates. Next, they learned how plants clean the air and planted a clean air plant garden of spider plants and philodendron. They also talked about the importance of putting healthy things on their bodies and made their own lip balm out of natural materials.

Overall, the girls had a really great time and so did we! Not only were they extra excited to be at Phipps, but many had never been to the Conservatory before. By encouraging them to use all of their senses to learn and experience Phipps, we hope that they take those skills out into their own communities and learn about the plants and animals that live there as well.

Check out more photos from the day in the slideshow below!

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Do you have a Brownie Girl Scout that missed our Girl Scout Day or scouts of a different age at home? Check out our school programs, seasonal Celebrate programs and Evening Ed-Ventures; keep your eyes peeled for our next Girl Scout Day!

If you would like to register for a scout program, please contact Sarah Bertovich at (412)441-4442 ext. 3925.

The above photos were taken by Christie Lawry.

February 19, 2014

Evening Edventure: Conservation Investigation

by Melissa Harding


A crime has been committed! Someone stole a bunch of bananas from the forest and we need a detective to figure out who did it. Luckily, at last Friday’s Evening Ed-Venture, we had 14 detectives to help us solve this heinous crime. During this mysterious program, campers learned how to be good detectives and sharpened their observational skills through a  series of challenges. They also got to take a crack at solving The Mystery of the Missing Bananas, a habitat-based mystery focused on teaching ecosystem interdependence. Not to mention, they got to spend time in the Conservatory at night! Campers had a criminally-good time and so did we.

Upon arrival, campers created a detective notebook to track their progress and to record any clues they found. Their first task was to complete a series of observation-based games to see how good they were at looking closely and listening. Campers drew pennies from memory, played “spot the difference”, guessed objects based on their sounds and tried their hand at memorizing faces. They also learned that detectives and scientists have quite a bit in common, both of them using their senses to observe and ask questions in order to solve mysteries, criminal or otherwise.


After our detectives were trained, they tried to solve our banana-based crime. In this mystery, campers interview plants about the animals on their suspect lists. The plants provide clues about who may or may not be guilty based on any alibis they can give for a particular animal. The goal of the program itself is to help students understand how plants need animals and animals need plants, all while playing a fun game. Campers loved the mystery and even suspected some of us as being the culprits! Finally, they all settled on the cockroach, who was the true villain.

After all the crime-fighting, the campers were pretty hungry, so we had a tropical snack of papaya, bananas and clementines. Newly fortified, the campers headed to the Conservatory, using a scavenger hunt to guide their observations. They had to look closely, read signs, and use all their senses to cross off every box on their sheet. By the time they were done it was time to head home and rest their detective eyes for the night. What a great Conservation Investigation!

If this program sounds fun, check out our next Evening Ed-Venture on March 14, Deserts and Desserts; in this exciting program, campers will learn all about desert adaptations and make some healthy treats to share! To register, contact Sarah Bertovich at 412/441-4442 etx. 3925.

The above photos were taken by Amanda Joy and Diana Harwood.

February 18, 2014

From the Ground Up: Preparing for Spring and Summer Planting

by Melissa Harding


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 and will be communicating with students at their partner institutions. 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. Students will also meet each month for a Saturday workshop involving activities designed to get them thinking critically about their food system and food culture. Calling themselves the Global Chefs, this group of students is excited to learn more about what food means in their lives.

Despite a crazy snow storm the night before that made the roads almost impassable, the latest meeting of the Global Chefs was jam-packed with fun activities. Not only did they get in quite a bit of planting and cooking, but they also had a chance to talk with some very special guests – the Nigerian team! First thing Saturday morning, the Nigerian team called the Global Chefs to learn more about their work. They asked lots of great questions, especially about what we are planting and cooking. It is very hot where they are, so their team is planting maize, rice and yams. When our teens told them how cold it was here and that we were getting so much snow, the Nigerians were amazed! One of the Global Chefs grabbed a handful of snow to show them and they couldn’t believe it. Both teams were so excited to finally talk to each other and can’t wait to do it again!

After this wonderful conversation, the teens moved on to seed starting. They started a total of nine trays of seeds for future planting. Half of those trays were filled with cold weather crops, like lettuce and broccoli, to be placed in Phipps Edible Garden in April. The other half of the trays were filled with warm weather crops, like tomatoes and peppers, and will be used by the 2014 Phipps summer interns to start their garden this June. Through this process, the teens learned about planting seeds, germination, and the best way to care for seedlings.


Finally, the group made a delicious meal using some of their own recipes from the past year. Joined by Kelsey Weisgerber, Director or Food Services for the Environmental Charter School, and Emily Schmiddlap of Just Harvest, the Global Chefs made yet another feast fit for a king! They cooked savory chicken and tofu kabobs, complete with peppers, onions, sweet potatoes, and a yummy peanut satay. They also made rice and goti, an Indian bread recipe. Finally, for dessert they cooked a delicious Indian pudding, sheer kurma.

Next month, the Global Chefs will be meeting at Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus for a full-day retreat. The teens will get to work on their cookbook mock-ups and learn more about urban gardening on the 388-acre campus farm.

To see more photos from the day, check out the slideshow below!

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The above photos were taken by Kate Borger.

February 17, 2014

Home Connections: Paper Sculptures

by Melissa Harding


As this stretch of wintry weather continues across the country, many schools are closing their doors in face of extreme cold temperatures and high amounts of snowfall and ice. While playing outside in the snow is a fun way to spend the afternoon, being outside in negative temperatures is not very safe and many parents prefer that their children spend their time inside on days like today. If you are a parent who finds yourself in a similar situation, we have a fun craft that we think will help your kids spend the hours occupied and entertained: paper sculptures! This fun craft is a great way to reuse newspapers, junk mail, magazines or other kinds of old paper and a good excuse to raid your recycling bins. Combining repurposed materials with a healthy dose of messiness, paper sculptures are a great winter day project.

At Phipps, we make our paper sculptures out of newspaper, craft glue and water. You will also need a large bucket or container in which to create your mixture and a base on which to create it. We often repurpose shallow, plastic containers for this purpose, but anything that has a shallow lip will work.

1. Shred your newspaper into small strips; the smaller the strips, the faster they will start to disintegrate into a usable pulpy mixture.
2. Put your shredded strips into the bucket and add water until you cover them. Let this mixture soak for at least an hour to become soft.
3. Once your paper is soft and feels pulpy to the touch, squeeze out the excess water and remove it from the bucket.
4. Mix in craft glue until the mixture is a gloppy consistency and will hold a shape if squeezed. (You can also use a flour/water paste if you are out of craft glue; just add your paste until the mixture resembles paper mache.)

Now you are ready to model! Be sure to work with your paper pulp on a covered surface and keep it on the base. It will drip some water as it dries, so keep an eye out for that as well. If you want to add some flair to your pulp, using colorful paper or magazine pages will do the job. You can also try adding paint to your mixture for optimal mess and color!


Not sure what to sculpt and looking for some inspiration? Check out some field guides or nature picture books to find a plant or animal to create or research some famous sculptures. You can also look out the window and see what inspires you or take a short walk. Anything can be an inspiration for art, so use this time to encourage your child to explore some of his or her favorite subjects – dinosaurs, alligators or even robots – for ideas. Happy crafting!

Interested in repurposed crafts? Learn more about how we repurpose cardboard, plastic, and glass.

Check out this post to learn how art can foster a connection with nature.

The above photos were taken by Hanna Mosca.


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