Archive for April, 2014

April 29, 2014

Biophilia: Pittsburgh, May 1 – BETA (Biophilia Enhanced Through Art) Project

by Melissa Harding

 Phipps Science Education_ Butterflies (1)

Biophilia: Pittsburgh

Thursday, May 1, 2014 – 5:30 p.m.
Free to attend – RSVP required.

Speakers: Richard V. Piacentini, Sonja Bochart and Nicole Capozzi

The May 1 Biophilia: Pittsburgh meeting will feature Richard V. Piacentini, Sonja Bochart, and Nicole Capozzi, who will introduce the new BETA (Biophilia Enhanced Through Art) Project in the Center for Sustainable Landscapes.

Creating connections to nature is important. In the built environment, this is often accomplished through the use of typical biophilic design strategies, such as providing views of nature, as well as natural ventilation and light, and by using natural materials. These strategies have been shown to bolster human performance and foster an appreciation for the earth. However, in order to truly reap the rewards of biophilic design we must go beyond a typical approach and enter a deeper realm of exploration to create truly transformative experiences; only then can we begin to immerse ourselves and others in, and restore our innate bonds to, nature. The BETA Project at Phipps was designed to address these issues by using art to awaken the true Spirit of our building and to create spaces that both remind us of the incredible beauty of nature, and demonstrate and celebrate the interconnectedness of all human and natural processes.

Richard V. Piacentini is the executive director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Sonja Bochart is an interior designer and principal at SmithGroupJJR. Nicole Capozzi is the owner of BoxHeart and a consultant for Mox Box.

After the presentation, there will be a question and answer session and tour of the art in both the public and private areas of the building.

About Biophilia: Pittsburgh
Biophilia: Pittsburgh is the pilot chapter for a Biophilia Network dedicated to strengthening the bond between people and the natural world through education, discussion and action. The group meets monthly at the Center for Sustainable Landscapes classroom at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens where, over delicious small-plate food and a happy-hour cash bar, a discipline or behavior will be identified — often by an expert guest speaker — and discussed among the participants in the interest of sharing ideas and identifying opportunities. Join the conversation!

RSVP by sending an email or signing up at the group’s Meetup page.

What is Biophilia?
The term “biophilia,” stemming from the Greek roots meaning “love of life,” was coined by the social psychologist Erich Fromm. It came into use in the 1980s when Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson defined biophilia as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.”

In the last twenty years, studies examining human attraction to nature have yielded convincing evidence that links interactions with nature with positive gains in productivity, increased healing rates, and even enhanced learning comprehension in a wide range of sectors.

Biophilia Pittsburgh

The top image was taken by Julia Petruska.

April 28, 2014

Little Sprouts: We Heart Veggies

by Melissa Harding


Spring is the time for planting gardens; peas, carrots and other cool weather crops are already shooting out of the ground and getting ready to produce delicious vegetables to fill our plates. Our Little Sprouts are especially excited for spring; in the latest Little Sprouts: Single, We Heart Veggies, campers explored our edible gardens in search of seasonal produce. They learned the parts of a plant and which of their favorite veggies are really roots, shoots, leaves or fruit.

To begin, campers used vegetables of all different shapes and sizes to make paint-stamped pictures. They used asparagus, broccoli, and cucumbers to create different textures and colors. After they were finished, campers had time to play in our new sensory bins filled with repurposed caps and dirt; they used recycled containers, measuring cups and funnels to explore the items inside each bin.

During the lesson, campers learned that plants all have the same parts – roots under the ground, stems to carry water, leaves to make food and flowers and fruit to create seeds. They learned that some veggies, like celery, are stems and others, like carrots, are roots. Finally, we read Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert and talked about the different colors of veggies.

After all this learning, campers were ready to explore. They traveled to the outdoor edible garden and the gallery, where they went on a scavenger hunt for veggies of different colors, shapes and sizes.  After returning from their tour, campers each planted a pea plant to take home and grow outside. Soon, they will all be eating veggies of their very own!

If you want to learn about vegetables with your own Little Sprout, here are some great story suggestions:
Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert
I Will Never Not Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child
Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens

Our next Little Sprouts Singles program, Our Butterfly Friends, is scheduled for May 22 and 23, 10:30 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 photos were taken by Phipps Science Education Staff.

April 25, 2014

Night Crawlers: An Creepy Ed-Venture

by Melissa Harding


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

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

A dead bug is not half as cool as a live one, so campers set off to catch their own. They laid traps in the Tropical Forest, burying small plastic containers in the dirt with a tiny amount of dog food in the bottom of each. Critters smell the bait and then fall into the trap, unable to get back out again. Campers left their traps to work for an hour, after which they found some worms, ants and beetles.  They also used a UV insect light to catch some bugs outdoors, finding some flies and mosquitos. They brought them back to the classroom for further observation, using magnifying glasses to see them better.


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

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

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

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

April 24, 2014

Poem in Your Pocket Day: What’s in YOUR Pocket?

by Melissa Harding


“Poetry should…should strike the reader as a wording of his highest own thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”
– John Keats

As promised, we are sharing some of our favorite poems for Poem in Your Pocket Day. If you have not found your own poem to share, we are happy to provide some examples! Of course, in keeping with the theme of connecting to nature, we wanted to share two of our favorite nature poems:

Grasshopper by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Of, if you are looking for something a little shorter:

XCVII by Emily Dickinson
To make a prairie it takes a clover
and one bee, –
One clover and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

Once you have found your special poem, share it! You’ll be surprised how the power of poetry can transform your community.

If you would like to learn more about Poem in Your Pocket Day, read this post.

To read more about how poetry can help connect us to nature, check out this blog post.

The above photo was taken by Lisa Xu.


April 22, 2014

Making an Environmental Commitment to Our Children

by Melissa Harding


“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.

Choose from actions related to:

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

“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 photo was taken by Cory Doman.

April 21, 2014

Backyard Connections: Snuggling Up to Soil’s Construction Crew

by Melissa Harding


Spring is the perfect time to get out and explore your yard. There is so much to see and do; plants are sending out new shoots, birds are nesting and the grass is turning green. In short, spring is a time of transformation and you don’t want to miss it! Start off my looking down at your feet and even farther into the ground; though it may look brown and lifeless, soil is truly alive. It is an ecosystem all of it own, complete with producers, decomposers and everything in between.  At Phipps, one of our favorite soil citizens is the humble worm. While it may just look like a slimy tube, a worm is so much more than that.

The earthworms that you see crawling in your flower garden contribute to soil health by adding nutrients through their castings and aerating the ground by digging tunnels. Worms eat soil; or rather, they consume the soil and digest bacteria from individual particles. They take giants bites of the soil as they crawl along, creating tunnels wherever they go. Whatever they don’t digest is excreted out the other end as worm castings. If these little guys didn’t fill the ground with tunnels, the soil would become compacted; this means that there would be no room for air and water in the soil, which would put the other critters and plants in bad shape. Worms are essentially the soil’s construction crew, making sure that everyone underground has a home.


Worms are also one of the most interesting soil critters to study.  Grab a piece of newspaper, clear plastic lid, flashlight and spray bottle of water, because here are the steps to conducting a super fun worm study at home in your own backyard:

Look inside
Worms are transparent, which means that you can literally watch their organs working.  The best way to look inside a worm place it on a clear, plastic plate and shine a flashlight up through it. The worm won’t like this, but it won’t hurt it. Look for tube running down the middle of the worm, filled with dark granules. That is the digestive tract. Worms don’t have stomaches, but rather a crop and gizzard (like a bird). After it eat, it stores the food in a crop, which is a little sack. Its gizzard, which is another sack made full of stones the worm has swallowed, grinds the food down and passes it through the intestines where nutrients are absorbed. The dark granules are pieces of dirt that the worm has swallowed.

Another thing to look for are the five hearts; they are not shaped like human hearts, but rather are actually aortic arches. Worms have blood vessels that move blood through their bodies very close to the skin (which is why they look pink). Human hearts work with our lungs to pump air into our blood and blood through our bodies. Worms have no lungs, as they breathe through the skin, so what their hearts do instead is help them digest their food.

Heads or Tails?

If you try to look for a worm head, you may be a bit baffled. Worms do have a head and tail, but it can be hard to tell which end is which. Worms have no eyes, since they spend most of their time underground in the dark; instead, they sense vibrations in the soil. To find the head, you need to put your worm on the ground or on your plastic plate and then wait. The worm will start to crawl; the head will lead the body as it begins to move. This is the end with the mouth, or prostomium. This is hard to see with a magnifying glass. In fact, it can be hard to discern much of anything with your eyes. Your ears, however, can help you.

Put your worm on a small piece of newspaper and then bend your ear down to listen. You should hear little scratching noises; this is the sound of the worm’s setae against the paper. Setae are little bristles on the worm that help it move through the soil. If a worm wants to hold itself tight against the soil, it can jab its setae into the dirt. You can also feel them on the worm, like little bumps. Run your fingers down its underside; its feels smooth, you are moving towards the tail and it feels rough, you are moving towards the head.

Make a muscle

See those stripes on the outside of the worm? Those are muscles! Earthworms have no arms or legs. They have two sets of muscles; one that makes it long and the other one that makes it short. When they want to move, the earthworm will alternate the use of its long and short muscles, which allows its body to be pushed forward in the soil. These are great to find with a magnifying glass.

Egg Hunt

Look for a band in the middle of the worm. This is called the clitellum, which is where a worm lays its eggs. Worms are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both eggs and sperm inside of them. However, they still need to mate in order to preserve genetic diversity; two worms will join their clitella together and exchange sperm sacks. Each worm will use the other’s sperm to fertilize their own ovules, then they lay little yellow sacks of eggs. These egg sacks are very small, about the size of a pin head, so it can take some work to find one. If you do, you are in for a treat; look carefully and sometimes you can even see the embryo inside!

By this time, your worm is probably pretty tired. Make sure to put your new friend back someplace moist and dark – under a rock or a chuck of soil. It will find its own way back down under the ground.

A note on handling worms: worms are very sensitive to temperature, light and moisture. It is always important to handle them with moist hands and watch for signs of fatigue. They will start to stretch out and go limp; they’re not dead, but it is best to put them back and give them some time to rest in the dark.

If you enjoy studying the worms in your yard, grab a shovel and dig for more critters. Pill bugs, millipedes, centipedes, and ants are just a few of the organisms that you can find in a handful of dirt. Even better, get your magnifying glasses and explore the tiny hairs on plant roots and the white strands of mycelia scattered through the soil. There are over 1 million earthworms in an acre of soil, so get digging!

The above photos were taken by Phipps Science Education staff.

April 18, 2014

Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow, Aurelie Jacquet

by Melissa Harding


 If there is one segment of society that is often misunderstood, it is people who work in science fields. Public perception of scientists tends to lean towards lab coats, crazy hair and beakers full of chemicals, especially in the eyes of children.  In reality, most scientists are just regular people who want to make the world a better place through scientific discovery. The best way to dispel the myth that scientists are boring or crazy is to get to know them; the purpose of this segment is to talk with real scientists to ask them what they love about their jobs and why they think their work is fun and important.

For our fifth installment in this series, we sat down with BIA Fellow Aurélie Jacquet. The Botany in Action Fellowship program at Phipps fosters the development of the next generation of plant-based scientists who are committed, first, to excellent research, and second, to educational outreach. 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. Aurélie is in her second year as a BIA Fellow, studying the effects of medicinal plants on Parkinson’s Disease.

We interviewed Aurélie about her interests in medicinal plants and why studying science is important:

1. Describe your work.
My name is Aurélie Jacquet and I am a Ph.D student at Purdue University. I come from France and I have decided to do my research in the USA to discover a new culture and get the opportunity to make an impact in our world. As a kid I used to travel and spend a lot of time exploring outside, so my interest in bringing plant, people and science together may come from this period. I study the medicinal plants used in Nepalese and Native American traditional medicine to cure Parkinson’s disease. I visited various areas in Nepal as well as the Blackfeet (Montana) and Lumbee (North Carolina) tribes in the USA. In Nepal and in the USA, I interviewed  traditional healers as well as local people and collected plant samples. These samples are then analyzed in my lab to identify therapeutic activities. Parkinson’s disease is an age-related disorder and no therapies are currently available to cure this disease. This work aims at discovering plant-based therapeutics that would be easily available for people in Nepal and developing countries. Today, 80% of the people in the world use medicinal plants as primary source of health care and don’t have access to modern medicine. Discovering new plant-based therapies would critically impact people’s life by providing cost effective and sustainable medicines. On the other hand, this work could lead to the formulation of more modern drugs and impact our own lives and our families. We are all inhabitants of this world and we all have a role to play to make it better for now and the future.
2. Why did you become a scientist?
I became a scientist because since I was a teenager I was interested in studying how people use medicinal plants in traditional medicine. I believed we could study these herbs and make medicines for all.
3. What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
I like to be able to meet general audiences and explain why traditional medicine and herbs are important and need to be protected.
4. What is the most important quality in a scientist?
Be passionate and relentless. Science is not an easy and smooth path. There is always a lot of time spent in optimizing experiments and it takes a lot of time to obtain results, especially in biology and pharmacology.
5. What is the coolest thing you have ever done at work?
Last summer, I traveled to Montana to meet the Blackfeet tribe. As part of my ‘education’ and spiritual experience with the tribe, I was offered to smoke the sacred pipe! During this time, I was able to learn about the meaning of the plants used during ceremonies and rituals.
6. If you weren’t a scientist, what other job would you want to do?
I would be a nature photographer or reporter in developing countries.
7. What are your hobbies outside of your research?
Photography and hiking
8. Why is science important?
Science is important because it helps us understand the world around us, protect endangered species, preserve knowledge but also help design medicines to cure terrible diseases such as Parkinson’s disease or malaria.
9. Why is it important for kids to learn science?
It is important for kids to learn science for various reasons. First, it helps build a “scientific mind”, which is critical to be able to analyze information rationally. Secondly, science helps understand how the world functions around us. It can be learning about the various families of plants, butterflies or why the planets turn around the sun! Finally, I have been judge for the Lafayette Regional Science and Engineering fair for 2 years, and I listen to kids’ presentation about a scientific project they build and conducted. I believe that they enjoy being able to independently create and lead a project, present their results and draw conclusions. It helps them thinking independently and increases their self-confidence.

Aurélie is an example of a scientists drawn to their field by their desire to help others. Science for its own sake is great, but learning more about the world for the purpose of making it better is the very best use of scientific research.

To learn more about Aurélie’s work, check out her Follow the Fellows page on the Botany in Action Website.
To see more of Aurélie’s photography, check out her website!

The above photo was taken by Amanda Joy.


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