Archive for ‘Research’

March 19, 2015

Engaging Parents in Science and Nature Education

by Melissa Harding


While we talk quite a bit in this space about engaging children in nature, there is one audience that we often forget: parents. This is especially true in informal education settings; adults are often lost to the tasks of caregiving and disengage from programs, even during ones in which they are specifically there to play a part. Creating programming that appeals to both children and their caretakers is a difficult task, but is an important one. Giving adults opportunities to engage in meaningful interactions with their children in nature not only helps children to create lasting memories that will foster a love of the natural world, but allows parents to connect with both nature and their child in a way that can be life-changing for them as well. Families with small children are increasing the time they spend in informal learning institutions and research suggests that adult interactions with children in these spaces positively impacts the experience. This means that there is a real need to better understand effective ways to engage the whole family together. At Phipps, we focus on two different ways of engaging adults; we give them experiences that help them to learn more about their child and how their child learns, and we give them the tools to support their child’s learning both at Phipps and at home.

This first approach is through our partnership with Carnegie Mellon University. We are working with researchers from CMU’s Cognitive Development Lab. They do this by playing games with their subjects that are designed to take show researchers how children think and how their thinking changes with development. While they watch their child participate, caregivers are given information on the study itself to help them understand more about the research question being investigated. This is a wonderful way for parents and children to engage with the research and, as the research questions often change quickly, there are many eager return customers.

Studies on the effectiveness of this approach have found that watching children participate in research studies increases adult awareness of child development as a science and that one-on-one conversations between adults and scientists increase adult understanding of the scientific process and their overall scientific literacy. Additionally, participants and viewers alike learn how science is applicable to their own lives, how research is conducted, what scientists look and act like, and how to answer tough questions using the scientific method.  It also can ignite the spark of lifelong science learning, one of the goals of effective science communication.

IMG_0213Another way that we engage parents is through family programming. Allowing adults to participate in our early childhood programs is a way that we can help to create connections to nature that they will carry back home. Our educators try to facilitate an interaction between family members, not dictate a classroom-type experience. We help parents to see the best ways to interact with their child outdoors; this includes teaching them a variety of fun observation exercises that young children enjoy, encouraging sensory experiences with plants and animals, and teaching respect for nature and appropriate boundaries. Our programs are not times for parents to check out and let our educators run the show, but really a time in which parents can get into the dirt with their kids and have fun. Often, parents learn just as many new things as their children and have been known to ask just as many good questions.

While we offer a number of adult education classes at Phipps, many young parents do not have the time to take them. By offering family programming, we are able to reach a very busy group of people and give them the tools to have meaningful outdoor experiences with their children. Research shows that spending time outdoors with a trusted adult creates an experience that children will remember long into adulthood; many naturalists cite these types of experiences as being influential in their lives and in their love of nature. We want to foster more of these experiences for all of our students and parents alike, hoping that together we can create a group of excited naturalists and scientists.

Looking for easy observation tools to incorporate into your programs or family time? Check out this post! Or check out our Backyard Connections series for ideas to connect with nature outdoors.

To learn more about increasing scientific literacy through museum research, check out this post!

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.

March 6, 2015

Talking about Plant Science at SciTech Days

by Melissa Harding

FullSizeRender (5)

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 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 18, 2015

Phipps Is Hosting a Spring Science Communication Workshop – Only a Few Days Left to Apply!

by Melissa Harding


We are offering an exciting opportunity for graduate students, faculty and staff scientists to connect their work to diverse public audiences. Please consider participating in our new Portal to the Public program at Phipps this spring!

The goal of the Portal to the Public program is to provide training in science communication for graduate students and professionals in science fields and provide an opportunity for the public to interact with scientists. Phipps will provide the communication training and the venue for scientists and the public to discuss science. Scholarships will be provided to all accepted members of the 2015 cohort. Please review the flyer below for more details, including a link to the application, and share it with all potentially interested contacts.

Completed applications are due to Amanda Joy by February 27, 2015.

Click on the flyer below for more information:

PoP Flyer

Download the application HERE.

Apply today!

The above photo was taken by Science Education and Research staff.


February 5, 2015

Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow Anna Johnson

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 Anna Johnson. 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. Anna has been a BIA Fellow for two years, researching urban ecology.

We interviewed Anna about her passion for the urban environment, why she loves planting flowers in vacant lots, and how practicing science can expand our world.

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

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania but when I moved to Pittsburgh, PA after college, I fell in love with the city. Now, I split my time between my home in Pittsburgh and where I work on my graduate degree, in Baltimore, MD. I am an urban ecologist, which means I study ecosystems that contain a combination of things you would expect to find in any terrestrial ecosystem (water, soil, plants, insects) but also built infrastructure (things like buildings, roads or bridges). One of the things I think about in my own life is what the role of humans should be in our world, and I try to study that too as a scientist, by studying what types of plants make their home in cities and how humans influence where they grow.

2. Why did you become a scientist?

I have always loved the natural world but didn’t really think about being a scientist until I worked as an environmental educator for a summer during college. I quickly began to realize how much I didn’t know about the natural world, and in the process of educating myself to better teach lessons, I realized that I actually had an aptitude for science, and that asking and answering questions was what I loved to do best (and bonus points if those questions were about our natural ecosystems!).

3. What part do plants play in your research?

I like to think of plants as a “habitat template”—in terrestrial ecosystems (that is, on land), plants really form the basis of ecosystems, and they are a big part of how we define habitats (what makes the forest the forest? The trees!). I study the plants that grow in vacant lots because I want to learn what species are able to survive in these tough relatively “new” habitats, and also (eventually—I haven’t gotten there yet with my research!) I’d like to study how their diversity affects other organisms such as pollinators or herbivores and the quality of the soils in vacant lots.


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

This is such a hard question! I find so much of what I do exciting because I love doing and trying new things, and my research always involves something new. Probably the most exciting thing that I have done recently is to help plant 25 vacant lots in Baltimore with wildflower seeds in April of this year, and then return to them in July to discover that they were beautiful and covered in flowers! I really didn’t think our plantings would work, but they did! I watched a family walk by one of the vacant lots and show the flowers to their child, and that made me so happy—that there was something they enjoyed looking at in a vacant lot that used to be mostly just viewed as a problem in their neighborhood.

5. What skills do you use in your job?

I love my job because I get to do different things almost every day, so I have to use lots of different skills. For example, I get to use/hone my organizational skills all the time (usually early in the morning, on my way to a day of field work as I write lists in my head of what tools I need to bring into the field with me…), but also I get to use my imagination when I write research proposals for new projects, my leadership skills when I have to convince my field crew that we should work all day in the cold or the heat or the rain and also some physical strength when I’m carrying heavy fence poles or digging holes in dry, compact soil.

 6. What is your favorite part of your job?

I love sharing my work with other people. Science can be lonely sometimes, so I jump at any opportunity to work in groups on projects or to start new collaborations with people who might have new ideas about ways to do/think about things.

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

I would probably work in an environmental non-profit of some sort—I really like working with groups of people on projects and I hate being in an office all day or talking about things I can’t see. I’d want to be out planting gardens or pruning trees or showing people how to care for/restore natural landscapes. Also, at the end of the day I would want to feel like I had done something useful that made people happier and healthier.

8. Why is science education important?

Science is all about asking and answering questions. To learn to do science is to learn how to collect data and then decide what it tells you (and be able to defend why you think that!). Science education is important because doing science is one of the only ways we can learn about things we don’t already know—otherwise, our world is very small because we are not able to add new knowledge to it, only revisit the same ideas and thoughts over and over. Science teaches us to explore new possibilities and gives us hope for the future.

Anna is a great example of someone who uses her work to help others; scientists contribute important information to our collective body of knowledge all the time by asking good questions and seeking out the answers. To read more about asking good questions, check out this blog post!

Follow Anna’s adventures in research at her blog!

The above photos are used courtesy of Anna Johnson and Phipps Science Education.

February 3, 2015

Say “Hello” to Free Choice Learning in the New Tropical Forest Congo!

by Melissa Harding


While we have many rooms and plants that change over time at Phipps, including our numerous seasonal shows, perhaps our most extensive and exciting new exhibit comes with the changing of our Tropical Forest Conservatory. Every three years, the entire room gets a serious face-lift; this winter, over 60 percent of the plant life will be removed to make room for plants from our newly highlighted region – the African Congo.  This new forest is the culmination of years of research by Phipps staff, including a trip to Cameroon, and will highlight some of Africa’s lushest landscapes.

In addition to being filled with unique and interesting plant species, this new forest also has an exciting interpretive plan designed to help visitors make the connection between the many different cultures of the region and their own relationships to nature. Focusing on how the people of the Congo region rely on the natural world for their food, culture, housing, economy, art, and architecture, the Tropical Forest Congo exhibit hopes to remind visitors of the power of plants in their own lives.


Even more exciting is the redoubled focus on science education within the Tropical Forest Congo. With their high diversity of plants and animals, tropical forests provide many excellent opportunities for scientific research; this makes the Tropical Forest Conservatory the perfect place to connect our visitors with what science (and scientists) really look and act like. Meant as a way to give visitors a hands-on look at the world of botanical research, both in the field and in the lab, the new exhibit puts guests into the shoes of real scientists. Each part of the exhibit invites visitors to learn about the scientific process through stories, activities, and sensory exploration. As they walk through the Forest, participants will encounter a research field station (starring BIA Fellow Jessi Turner as our example scientist!), several research kiosks with real scientific tools they can use to collect data, and a lab space.

Congo4Not only does this exhibit enable visitors to experience a bit of the life of a scientist throughout the whole research process, but it encourages them to make a personal connection with botanical research and the importance of plants. It also connects them to the field of science in general and helps to  increase overall scientific literacy. These types of exhibits and activities are important for increasing scientific literacy because most Americans learn the majority of their science knowledge through free choice learning opportunities like those found at Phipps. According to “The 95 Percent Solution”,  a rather infamous 2010 report published by the journal American Scientist, non-school resources, like museums, are where most science learning occurs.

This is particularly important for children. A 2009 report from the National Research Council found that not only do these kinds of experiences start a child’s long-term interest in science, but they can significantly increase scientific literacy in populations that are typically under-represented in science. Museum learning not only reinforce topics taught in school, but has the potential to create a vibrant spark in a student that lasts his whole life. Effective science communication through exhibits like the Tropical Forest Congo inspires students to pursue STEM careers and develop a passion for life-long learning.

People learn throughout their entire lives – both as children and as adults. Finding new ways to get them interested in science, especially through a multi-disciplinary approach, is essential to creating new avenues of learning. We are proud that our new interpretive exhibits within the Tropical Forest Congo will contribute to creating a spark of science learning in our visitors for the next three years!

Come celebrate the opening of our new exhibit with a special opening festival – February 7, 11:00-4:00pm! There will be a variety of fun, family-friendly activities such as storytelling, pot-a-plant, cultural crafts, food sampling and visits from real botanical researchers – all free with Phipps admission! Learn more on our website.

Learn more about the importance of free choice learning in museum settings here.

What does a scientist look like? Check out this blog post about how children’s perception of scientists influences their engagement in science.

Photos © Tim Hammill; Paul g. Wiegman; Denmarsh Photography, Inc.



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