Archive for ‘Nature’

March 13, 2015

2015 High School Internship Opportunity: Horticulture, Sustainability and Service

by Melissa Harding


Will and Larissa weeding

“A previous intern had once told me this was one of the best experiences of her life. I hardly believed that would be the same for me, but after being here for two summers, I honestly feel the same way. Phipps has provided me with amazing opportunities and education as well as allowing me to meet all the great people that make Phipps what it really is.”
– Will, 2013 and 2014 intern

Do you know any students that would make strong and eager candidates for an extraordinary summer learning experience?

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is now accepting applications from highly motivated high school students with an interest in the well-being of the planet to serve as summer interns in our paid internship program which will run from June 22nd through July 30th. All applicants must be at least 16 years of age by June 22 and have at least one year of school left. Students of diverse backgrounds are encouraged to apply.

Our high school internship provides hands-on experience working with our science education and horticulture staff, along with classes, service projects, and field trips that expose students to a wide range of “green” concepts and career options.

More information and a Phipps employment application and a supplemental application form, along with a flyer suitable for posting can be downloaded from the Phipps website.


“More than teaching me about plants and the environmental problems, this internship has shown me a deeper meaning of the value of work and achievement. It has also taught me that doing things you never thought you could do and, most importantly doing then well, as best as you can, is one of the most rewarding feelings there is. I will forever be grateful for my time spent here at Phipps and will not forget all the amazing people – horticulturalists, chefs, students, staff and volunteers – that I met here. ”
– Larissa, 2013 and 2014 intern

All interested students should submit the following to be considered for employment:

Application materials are being accepted between February 1st – April 1st, and should be sent to:

Kate Borger, High School Program Coordinator
Phipps Conservatory
One Schenley Park
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

For more information call 412/622-6915 ext. 3905 or email today!

Download and print a flier to help spread the word.

To learn more, check out previous blog posts about last year’s internship here. You can also learn about our first annual Youth Garden Summit here, and check out some pictures below:

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This program is made possible with support from the Grable Foundation and Pennsylvania’s Education Improvement Tax Credit Program.

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

March 9, 2015

Asking Good Questions in Nature

by Melissa Harding


“Your questions are more important than your answers.”
– Fred Rogers

Science is more than a collection of facts and figures, but is a way of looking at the world and investigating what makes it work. The practice of science requires inquiry skills and the ability to understand and carry out the scientific process. Problem solving in this way, using a set of keen observational skills to gain a better understanding of the world, requires asking good questions. In fact, most scientific investigations begin with a question generated from experience.  We may take it for granted that children will be able to easily ask the right questions to get the answers they need, but this is a skill that requires some cultivating. Question posing, a technique often used by classroom teachers, is essential to the process of scientific inquiry. This is such an important part of teaching that helping students learn to create good questions is required by the National Science Education Standards. Students need this skill, as it helps them to better understand the central role of questions in science, as well as to become better inquirers. Questions promote curiosity and a good question can generate many more. Helping children to ask good questions not only requires them to look more closely at the world around them, but gets them excited about finding the answers.

So what is a good question? A good question is one that can be investigated. It’s not a closed-ended question with a “yes” or “no” answer, but rather one that requires an explanation. A good question also needs to be narrow enough that it is answerable. While asking broad questions is a great way to generate excitement for a topic, narrowing the focus is helpful. Finally, good questions are related to natural phenomena; in fact, the best questions come after experiencing something interesting – a lightening strike, a chemical reaction, a flower blooming.

There are three types of good questions: definition, experimental and observational. Definition questions are questions with pre-determined answers, such as “what is a flower?” or “what is lightening?”. These answers have definitions associated with them and can be looked up in a resource. However, these are common questions that children ask and can serve to build up a child’s knowledge base about a topic. These type of questions often lead to the other types, as learning more often only serves to generate more questions. Experimental questions explore how things relate to each other and usually are answerable through experimentation. Observational questions do just that – use observation as a way to answer them. These types of questions help children to understand patterns in nature, animal behavior, phase changes, etc. All of these types of questions are in invitation to inquiry, helping children to develop a richer understanding of the world around them.


The ability to use and interpret knowledge critically and thoughtfully is important both in the classroom and in life. A good foundation of observation skills and the ability to ask the right questions will serve children both in science and in other subjects, such as language arts. After all, critical thinking is just as relevant to literature as it is to science and problem solving is not the sole purview of math. These skills may also spark a passion for life-long learning, creating future astronomers or gardeners. As a parent, teaching these skills to your child is important. However, it may seem daunting to think about teaching science skills, especially if you don’t have a strong science background yourself. Not to worry, it is much easier than it sounds! In fact, one of the best ways to work on the skill of asking good questions is simply spending time outside. Nature has so many changing elements and moving parts that it is sure to get any child excited about observing and asking questions. Whether it is the backyard or local green space, spending time outside will engage your family in the natural world.

However, while a nature hike is a fine way to get outside, it can sometimes feel like a forced march to kids, especially when they are not used to that activity. Being outside can also make children uncomfortable if it is rainy or cold, which makes them pretty unlikely to enjoy themselves or to learn very much. If this is new to your family, playing games, gardening, and walking the dog are just as effective to get everyone outside as intentionally planning time to practice science. Eventually a bird or some oddly-shaped clouds will catch someone’s eye and organically lead to observation and asking questions. If it is too cold to go outside, nature can be found indoors as well; making observations out the window or even just watching some seeds grow are simple activities that will have a big impact. Simply put, research shows  that just being outside with your children will cause their cognitive abilities to bloom.


While nature is pretty engaging by itself, there are strategies that you can use to get your children excited about being outside and asking great questions. Even better, these strategies go to work in minutes!

1. Encourage observation: Observation is how people learn. It involves using the senses to gain a deeper understanding of the world; start sniffing, feeling and looking closely at everything around you. Pick things up and see what noises they make. Taste if you think its appropriate. As long as you use some common sense about safety, you will have a great time observing your way through your yard.
2. Be mad scientists: Help your child answer questions by taking the next step in the scientific process – an experiment! Experiments don’t have to take place in a lab; they can happen on your sidewalk or in your kitchen. If you child asks a question that can be answered by simple science modeling, go for it! See what happens when you crack an egg on the sidewalk or put out some crackers for the ants. These easy experiments are often so fun that you just might get excited about them, too!
3. Ask open-ended questions to encourage observation: Open-ended questions are wonderful tools that promote creative thought and spark curiosity. While a question like, “What color is this leaf” evokes a one-word answer, “Tell me about this leaf” encourages a child to observe and describe. There is no right or wrong answer and can often give parents a window into what their child is thinking. You will be amazed about how excited your child will get when you ask for their opinions and ideas.
4. Model good behavior: Your child will be much more inclined to get on the ground and look through his magnifying lens if you are doing the same. Older children in particular will take note if you ask them to do things that you have no interest in, so get dirty with your kids! While it may start off as modeling, you may soon find yourself pretty excited about what you find.

Remember, it’s the process not the product, so just have some fun outside and see what happens. You will be growing scientific minds right before your eyes!

To learn more about how we teach observation skills through nature at Phipps, check out this post.

Read more about the importance of observation here.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.

March 6, 2015

Talking about Plant Science at SciTech Days

by Melissa Harding

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Yesterday, we spent the day with the future scientists of Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Science Center’s SciTech Days! This twice yearly event is a chance for both middle and high school students to meet with science professionals to learn more about their careers in the growth areas of Pittsburgh –  robotics, biotechnology, eco-technology and health. The day also features a variety of workshops and educational programs, as well as a chance to explore the exhibits, all of which is linked to the Next Generation Science Standards. We were there to represent the importance of biology and the natural world in our lives, as well as to talk about careers in the environmental field.

Kate and Melissa manned a table focusing on clean air plants, which are plants that help to clean toxins out of the air. They spoke with students about indoor air quality, including some of the products that bring chemicals into their homes. Students are always surprised that the air in their home can be 2-10% worse than the air outside! They also talked about the process by which some plants are able to increase the cleanliness of indoor air. Finally, they planted philodendron plugs with students to take home with them.


Dr. Emily Kalnicky also led a workshop entitled “Biophilia: Connecting with the Environment“, in which she spoke about how a strong connection with nature leads to an increase in conservation attitudes. In addition to talking about why people choose to behave in environmentally responsible ways, she also discussed the concept of biophilia and the growing proliferation of biophilic design in the built environment. She particularly highlighted our new CSL building, including some of the natural design elements within, and how it takes a holistic and integrative approach to human and ecological wellness.

While yesterday’s bad weather did keep some schools at home, we still had a great turn-out and enjoyed our time with the students. We can’t wait until the next SciTech Days this fall!

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





March 3, 2015

Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow Aurélie 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 next 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 has been a BIA Fellow for three years, researching ethnobotany and traditional herbal medicines.

We interviewed Aurélie about how she combines her love of nature, people and plants into her research:

1. Introduce yourself and your work in 5 sentences or less. 

My name is Aurélie, and I am working on a Ph.D in the department of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Purdue University. I study traditional herbal medicines and their potential protective effects on Parkinson’s disease. I traveled to Nepal and I work with Native Americans to learn about the medicinal plants they use, and now I have selected a few to study in the lab.

2. Why did you become a scientist? 

I became a scientist because I realized that I could help others with my work. At an early age, I knew that I wanted to work with medicinal plants and find a way to help people by turning these plants into medicine. Science was the best answer to achieve this goal!

3. What part do plants play in your research?

Plants are the basis of my work. Everything I do involves plant and plant extracts. For example, when I go to the field to interview people, I ask how plants are used as medicine. I also collect herbarium specimens to deposit in herbarium for future references. After collecting plants, I make extracts. I basically make a tea, dry it and use the remaining powder for my studies. I also have small plants in my office, just to keep me grounded!

4. What is the most exciting thing you have ever done at work?  

The most exciting thing for me is to meet indigenous people and learn their traditions. Last year, I had the honor to be offered to smoke the sacred pipe! I witnessed the ceremony, the central importance of plants, and I am very grateful to have experienced it. It is a real gift that I will never forget.

Jacquet field photo-001

5. What skills do you use in your job? 

Because I have an interdisciplinary project, I need to use a variety of skills. During the fieldwork, I need to be able to communicate with healers and local people. Often, my questions about the uses of plants need to be handled carefully so that people don’t misunderstand my goal, which is to help find medicines and not steal knowledge. I also need to be able to write for multiple audiences. For example, I write differently if I return my research results to my participants or if I publish in a scientific journal. During my time in the lab, I need another set of skills. More than anything, I need patience and precision because I want to be able to reproduce my results several times. I couldn’t forget to mention analysis skills, because when I look at my results I need to be able to understand what they mean, find explanations and design the next experiments to be done.

6. What is your favorite part of your job? 

My favorite part of the job is without doubt to be in the field, feeling the plants in my hands, listening to stories and being remembered how precious Nature is!

7. If you weren’t a scientist, what job would you choose? 

If I wasn’t a scientist, I would be a photographer or a reporter. I would still want to learn about people, just in a different way!

8. Why is science education important? 

Science education is important because everybody need to be educated about how our world work and what need to be done to preserve it. Science is not worth much if people don’t have access to the new knowledge. I believe an educated population will be able to make the best decision for itself.

Aurélie is not only an exceptional scientist, but also an incredibly accomplished photographer who has won numerous awards for her work. She is an example of someone who combines a love of both art and science into one career. Check out this blog post to learn more about the connection between art and science!

To follow Aurélie’s adventures in research at, check out her website!

The above photos are used courtesy of Aurélie Jacquet and Phipps Science Education.

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!


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