Archive for February, 2015

February 27, 2015

Challenge #4 of Fairchild Challenge at Phipps: Eco-Scientist Graphic Novels

by Melissa Harding



When you think about a hero, it is pretty easy to name the stars of comic books and movies, but often much harder to think of the real heroes who work every day to make our world a better place. One kind of hero that often goes unrecognized is the scientist; scientists devote their lives to learning more about the world around them so that society can be healthier and safer. In particular, environmental scientists work hard to learn how human actions affect the planet and how we can all be better stewards of the Earth. During the latest challenge of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps, high school students were asked to choose one environmental scientist whose work they admire and turn their life and work into a graphic novel. Students did extensive background research on their subjects, creating a biography crossed with a superhero comic book. Over 70 students participated in this challenge and the results were really incredible.

The subjects of these novels included such inspirational heroes as Rachel Carson, John James Audubon, Julia Butterfly, and Aldo Leopold; they included both past and contemporary scientists, as well environmental researchers, conservationists, writers and artists. The judges were blown away by the artistry, creativity, beauty, and humor of the submissions.

1st Place: North Allegheny Intermediate High School
2nd Place:  A. W. Beattie Career Center
3rd Place (tie): West Mifflin Area High School and North Allegheny Senior High School

Special Merit Awards:
Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 for “Poetic Imagining”
Woodland Hills High School for “Future Cartoonist”
West Greene Middle Senior High School for “Comic Style and Humor”

But don’t just take our word for it – check out some of the winning submissions in the slideshow below:

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Above photos of the winning entries were taken by Phipps Science Education and Research staff.




February 26, 2015

We Just Launched Our New Website!

by Melissa Harding

new website

You may not have noticed, but we are going through some pretty exciting changes at Phipps in 2015. First, we created an entirely new Tropical Forest exhibit and now we are debuting a new website! Over a year in the making, the new online home of Phipps offers lots of never-before-seen features, including highlights from our plant and art collections, an improved online tour, and a smart design that works on desktops, tablets and smartphones. The new website is beautiful, informative and has many more features to help visitors learn more about Phipps and the programs that we offer.

We have also improved the process of registering for programs! If you are interested in signing up your child or students for one of our children’s programs (or yourself for some of our awesome adult education classes), the new online Phipps store makes signing up a breeze; now it is easier than ever to use your member discounts on classes. With so many exciting summer camps coming up, you’ll want to try out the new system soon!

Please visit and have a look around:

We hope that you love it as much as we do!

Photo © Paul g. Wiegman


February 25, 2015

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 Science Education staff.

February 24, 2015

Wonderful Worms in Winter!

by Melissa Harding


Even though it was one of the coldest days of the year so far, our Little Sprouts braved the winter weather to join us in the Tropical Forest last Friday for February’s Little Sprouts program, Wonderful Worms. During our latest Little Sprouts adventure, campers learned all about worm bodies and how these wonderful little critters help plants grow. Of course, they also sang songs, met a whole mess of worm friends, and got up close and personal with some plants in the Conservatory!

To begin, campers played with dirt and “compost” sensory bins; we created a compost bin out of shredded paper, plastic fruits and pipe cleaner worms to simulate what our real vermicomposter is like inside. Our campers really enjoyed the furry, fake worms!

After singing our welcome song together, the campers explored their mystery boxes. Inside they found real worms from our worm composter, along with some shredded paper. Campers explored the texture, temperature, shape, and size of these critters. They then used flashlights to look inside them and see the food as it passed through their digestive system. After they had seen our worm friends, campers learned how worms use their muscles to move through song by singing “The Worms in the Dirt” (hint: they go “wiggle, wiggle, wiggle”.)

Next, campers and their caregivers made their own worm art using spaghetti “worms” to make tracks in brown tempera paint. This sensory activity is not only fun, but allows campers to continue to explore touch and textures. After painting, campers ate a healthy snack of apples and bananas while Mr. Steve read “Wonderful Worms” by Linda Glaser. Finally, campers climbed through the Tropical Forest hunting for brightly colored yarn “worms” on the ground.

We had so much fun and can’t wait for our next Little Sprouts program in March!

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


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To learn how to do your own worm study at home, check out this Backyard Connections post about worms!

Our March Little Sprouts program is already full, but please join us for four-day Sprouts over the summer. If you think this program sounded like fun, check out our summer camp “We Like Dirt” for a full week of playing in the mud! Please call Sarah Bertovich to register at 412-422-4441 ext. 3925 or visit our website.

The above photos were taken by Science Education staff and volunteers.

February 23, 2015

Creating a Rich Environment: The Role of the Adult in Children’s Play

by Melissa Harding


“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Do you remember the games that you used to play as a child? Pretending to be princesses, cowboys, explorers with your friends; turning a pile of blocks into a city or using a stick as a sword; making up ridiculous rules for pretend games. Many of us have fond memories of playing with friends and family, as well as alone – it doesn’t take much effort to think back to those fun times we all had as children. There is a reason for that; playing is one of the most important developmental tasks of early childhood. It turns out that all the time you spent pretending to be a monster is key to who you are today. Long, uninterrupted blocks of time spent playing – by yourself and with your peers – are what allowed you to develop into a successful adult and are what will help your children do the same.

Play is a purposeful experience for children and very gratifying, something that they love to do and find endlessly absorbing. Children employ themselves very seriously in the act of play. At the same time, play is a bit of a paradox; it is both serious and silly, real and pretend, apparently purposeless yet absolutely essential. So what is play? One of the commonly accepted definitions of play is something that is: intrinsically motivated, controlled by the players, about process rather than product, non literal, free of any externally imposed rules, and  actively engages the players. To ask a child, it means the absence of adults and the presence of peer or friends.


There are many forms of play that develop at different rates in different children. Most very young children start off with sensory or exploratory play – touching, mouthing, feeding themselves – and add other forms of play as they develop. In fact, playing itself helps children to build upon their skills and develop into new kinds of play. Learning is integrated in play and largely unseen to most adults. Play has an intrinsic value because this learning is child-directed and takes place without direct teaching. It develops the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success. Building with blocks can lay the foundation for mathematical and scientific thinking; rough-housing develops social and emotional self-regulation; pretend play creates communication and conversation skills. As they develop skills in play, children begin to have greater creativity and flexibility in thinking. Play has even been cited as having  a positive influence on literacy. Learning and development go hand-in-hand with play, each an inseparable dimension of the other. Clearly, play is powerful stuff.

IMG_0371Children are quite happy to play on their own and to play with anything handy. However, there is a great deal that parents can do to support play:

1. Create a culture of play: Play needs time and space; give your child ample time to play on their own and with friends. A long, uninterrupted period of 45-60 minutes is the recommended minimum amount of time to support free-play.
2. Provide a variety of materials for play: “Loose parts” encourage children to manipulate the environment around them. These can be things found in nature, such as sticks and acorns, or build materials like blocks and clay. A mix of both kinds is best. Other useful items are dress-up clothes, art supplies, construction toys and balls for motor play.
3. Create a playful environment: Adults can help to set the stage, creating and maintaining an environment conducive to play. This can be something like providing a great location (going to the park, building a tree house or a fort) or as simple as great materials.
4. Allow some calculated risk-taking: Some risks (i.e. climbing trees or walking on logs) are appropriate and some are not; this is for you to judge as a parent. However, challenge and risk-taking is important to the developing confidence and gross-motor skills. Consider allowing your child to take some calculated risks.
5. Be OK with a mess: Play can be messy, muddy and a little rough. Accept the mess; your kids will love it.
6. Take an interest: Attentive adults can help redirect play when children get frustrated and result in longer, more complex episodes of play. Be a responsive watcher on occasion and become a co-player and role model, not a director.

There is also an emerging body of evidence that supports the power of outdoor play. Nature play is sensory, diverse and challenging. It provides the ideal setting and materials for any game and it’s a great place to make a mess. Full of loose parts, nature is full of elements that can be combined, adapted and manipulated. The rough, uneven surfaces are great for developing physical strength and building confidence. It is also a rich source for fantasy play. If nothing else, let your child play outside. With or without an adult presence, though preferably a little bit of both, outdoor play is a wonderful activity for children.

“Supporting children’s play is more active than simply saying you believe it is important. When children’s play culture is taken seriously, the conditions which make it flourish are carefully created. Children’s play culture does not just happen naturally. Play needs time and space. It needs mental and material simulation to be offered in abundance. Creating a rich play environment means creating good learning environments for children.”  – Marjatta Kalliala, author of Play Culture in a Changing World.

Winter is actually a great time to be outside. There are snowballs to throw, snowmen to create and icicles to collect. Outside is an endless playground – head outside today and help your child create memories to last a lifetime!

To learn more about the power of play and delve deeper into the supporting research, check out Dr. Par Jane Hewes’ excellent article Let the Children Play: Nature’s Answer to Early Learning.

Also, check out The Importance of Play and get practical ideas for creating play-positive environments over at The Imagination Tree.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.

February 20, 2015

Tune In: Plants and Pollinators Art Challenge Winners on the Radio this Saturday!

by Melissa Harding

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Tomorrow, February 21st at 10:35 am, The Saturday Light Brigade family radio station will feature a 25-min interview with the “Plants and Pollinators” middle school art winners from the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps competition. Over 344 area students created beautiful drawings that reflect the relationship between plants their pollinators. Hear from the winners about the challenge and what they learned from it!

The Saturday Light Brigade can be heard every Saturday morning on WRCT 88.3 FM. It also streams live at where the interview will be archived under Neighborhood Voices.

Read more about this challenge and learn about the Fairchild Challenge competition HERE!

The above picture was a winning drawing in the most recent challenge!

February 19, 2015

We Say “Goodbye” to Steve: Reflections of a Science Education Intern

by Melissa Harding


Steve Bucklin, our 2014 science education intern, will be ending his internship this week. He will be leaving Science Education and Research, but not Phipps, as he will continue to work in the Conservatory with our Discovery Education department, providing wonderful education experiences to our youngest guests and their caregivers. We are so excited that Steve will be staying a part of the Phipps family!

The following essay, written by Steve, is a reflection on the time he spent with our department:

It’s amazing both how long and how short one year can seem. In the time it took for the Earth to revolve around the sun once, countless organisms lived out their entire lives (think of all the annual flowering plants that go from seed to plant to flower and back again!), and I completed my internship with the Science Education and Research team at Phipps. Looking back on the past year, it’s shocking how quickly the time has passed, but the experience I’ve gained from the time I’ve spent at Phipps has made it one of the most impactful years of my life.

At the start of my internship, teaching made me extremely nervous. Standing in front of a group of 10 to 30 or more young children and helping to shape the way they think and what they know isn’t an easy task, and it becomes a lot more complicated when you add in things like crafts and snacks. However, over the course of my internship, I was able to teach many classes and work on becoming comfortable and relaxed in the classroom. I’ve learned that being relaxed is essential not only to the classes you teach being more effective and entertaining for the students, but it makes teaching a lot more fun too! Now I feel a sense of excitement when I get to lead a class and I am much more confident in front of groups. With the help and guidance of the wonderful Science Education team at Phipps and a lot of practice, I’ve really begun to develop my teaching skills. In total, I helped the Science Education team teach 36 field trip programs, 25 Little Sprouts camp classes, and 35 other seasonal and summer camps.


One great example of the progress I made during my internship is what I accomplished as part of the Eco Challenge. The Eco Challenge is an annual event at Phipps where students from different middle and high schools complete a series of challenges designed to engage them in thinking critically about environmental issues and sustainability. My job was to create an activity focused on the effect of food on the environment for middle school students. It was a daunting task, to say the least. The end product was a game that was both an age-appropriate way to discuss the environmental impact of food and that empowered student to make positive decisions. This program was very inspiring to me. Educating both others and myself about the environment has been a primary focus in my life since high school. To be able to do so for nearly 150 middle school students in a single day left me feeling unlike I ever have before.

As my time in the Science Education department reaches an end, I am sure that I am heading down a path that is right for me. Doing this work is the most rewarding thing I have ever experienced and I hope I am able to continue doing it! As for my plans now, I’ll still be around the Conservatory for the foreseeable future. I have been working part-time in the Discovery Education department doing public programs for children since December and plan to continue my work there as I search for full-time employment. There’s no telling what the future holds, but the many opportunities I have had to gain experience in environmental education since graduating college have left me feeling very optimistic. I am very glad that I have the opportunity to continue working at Phipps and that I’ll be able to stop in and visit the awesome staff in Science Education as I keep progressing as an educator!

We would also like to thank Steve for all the hard work that he has done for us this past year.
We are so proud of him and wish him the best of luck!

The above photos were taken by Phipps Science Education and Research staff.


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