Archive for ‘Science’

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 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 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 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.



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