Posts tagged ‘NPR’

May 9, 2013

Get Engaged in Science: Send a Poem into Space with NASA

by Melissa Harding



The NASA Starshine project, launched in 1999, consisted of three, optimally reflective spherical satellites designed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. What was unique about Starshine was that these three satellites were built, not by NASA itself, but by a volunteer coalition of organization and individuals in the USA and Canada. Covered in approximately 1000 small, front-surface aluminum mirrors, these orbs were deployed into highly inclined low Earth orbits as a service to the international education community. As the satellites traveled, their reflective mirrors made them visible to students all over the world, who observed their movements as an interactive way to learn math and science. To help students make a personal connection to the project, NASA sent mirrors to schools where they were polished by students. I was one of those students. Even though it was over a decade ago, I still remember that experience and how excited I was to be a part of history.

A generation of students later, NASA has come up with another way for the public to interact with its space missions. This time, they are sending a rover to Mars to study its upper atmosphere.  Called the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) project, this mission will examine why Mars lost its atmosphere, and how that affected the planet’s water supply. To make this more relevent to the public, the mission team at NASA is calling for literary submissions – haiku, to be specific. Three of the best haiku will be included on a DVD that will go with the mission to Mars. While this may sound a little silly, it is actually a wonderful way for NASA to engage the public in its latest mission to Mars. By contributing a poem, a participant is making a personal connection to space exploration and the study of the solar system (and beyond!).

If you would like to be a part of history yourself, all citizens of Earth are invited to participate! Check out the MAVEN homepage to get started. NPR has also gotten in on the game; you can read the original article and submit your entry at their website as well. The submission deadline is July 1, and starting July 15, the public will vote on the three winning poems to travel on the spacecraft’s DVD. The winners will be announced Aug. 8. The poems will be accompanied on the MAVEN by some student artwork, selected by popular vote in a separate contest.

Note: You do have to be 18 years old to create a log-in email profile, and children are encouraged to ask parents and teachers for help. All haiku must be in English.

This is a great project for families and teachers alike. Not only will participating get your child excited about NASA, but it may create a spark that lights the fires of a future career in science or love of space and nature. Even if your submission is not chosen, the names of every participant will be carried up to space. What a great incentive!

If your child or students enjoy this activity, check out some of our others suggestions for incorporating more poetry into your family or student life.

The above photo of Mars is courtesy of

January 23, 2013

Thoreau’s Phenology: Past Plant Wisdom for a Changing Climate

by Melissa Harding


Serviceberries are one of the first trees that flowers in the spring. With their tiny, white flowers, these small trees show some of the first stirrings of life in the winter forest. The plant gets its name from the early settlers who used it as an indicator of spring; when the tree was flowering, they knew that the ground was thawed enough to bury those who had died over the winter. The delicate blossoms served as a beautiful memorial to the dead and marked the time for funeral services. For these settlers, early spring started in April or even May. Winter was bitter and long, lasting many months. Fast forward to 2012 and the serviceberry plant is starting to bloom as early as March. This large change in bloom times is measured by the practice of phenology, or the study of plant and animal life cycles.

Many famous authors and statesmen were phenologists; from 1766-1824, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote volumes on the plants and animals at Monticello; from 1852-1858, Henry David Thoreau passionately recorded the coming of spring flowers around Walden pond in Concord, Massachusetts; from 1935-1945, Aldo Leopold chronicled the coming and going of life in Dane County, Wisconsin. These men spent every day walking acres of land and taking note of what they saw happening around them. They developed an intimate knowledge of the land they walked, noticing every minor occurence. Every spring, Thoreau recorded in his journals when hundreds of different flowers first opened.

Today’s scientists are using the records left by these early naturalists to predict the changes that climate instability will bring. Scientists in both Wisconsin and Massachusetts, working collaboratively on separate but parallel studies, published the findings of research comparing data from both Thoreau and Leopold to current phenological data. Their research shows that the record high temperatures of last spring resulted in earlier bloom times. In Massachusetts, the pattern they found was that for each degree Celsius rise in mean spring temperature, plants bloomed 3.2 days earlier. In Wisconsin, it was 4.1 days earlier for each degree rise. In an average year, spring plants will bloom around 11 days earlier than in the time of Thoreau.

Is this good for plants or bad? A little bit of both. For example, plants might benefit from longer growing seasons, but they could suffer if their pollinators don’t adapt as quickly. Before this study, scientists didn’t know if plants would be able to adjust their bloom times to the changing climate; there was concern that flowering, leaf out, and growth might be delayed for plants that have not experienced long spring photoperiods or that need a long cold period to hibernate. This peek into the future by way of the past allows scientists to predict bloom times for current temperatures, though they caution that as temperatures increase further, plants may not be able to keep up.

To learn more, check out NPR’s Science page or the peruse entire study at the journal PLOS One.

The above image is courtesy of May Dream Garden.

September 28, 2012

What Are Trees Made Of?

by Melissa Harding

Most people would say trees are made of soil, sun, water and air.

As always when dealing with the natural world, the truth is more complex and beautiful than that. Robert Krulwich, National Public Radio blogger and co-star of WNYC’s Radiolab, investigates where trees come from in this week’s Krulwich Wonders column.

He asks: When you see a tree, where do its mass, branches and leaves come from? The answer is…air.

Krulwich cites Nobel Laureate and theoretical physicist Richard Feynman and Australian science website, Veritasium, concluding that trees do indeed come from air. What a strange idea, to think of trees popping out of the sky.

What’s even stranger is that they really do.

Richard Feynman explains how air creates fire and trees.

Intrigued? Read the original article here.

Still intrigued? Visit the BBC’s archives of Richard Feynman’s Fun to Imagine series on physics in real life.

The above photo was taken by Christie Lawry.


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