Sunday, September 28, 2008

Our Teeny Tiny Hermit Crab

Our hermit crab is so cute!

We visited friends on Long Island this summer, and I finally got to add a hermit crab to our collection. Our 12-year-old host was kind enough to fish this fellow out of the depths for us. We've kept him alive on frozen shrimp (brine shrimp from Petsmart, that is). If I can find some brine shrimp eggs, I will try to provide him with live food (and us with ever-smaller pets!).

I am totally impressed that he has managed to survive this long, in just a jar of sea water with some playground sand and a few pebbles thrown about for an environment. I stuck in a few larger shells -- he does seem to have grown in the weeks we've had him -- but I suspect they are a little large, and he shows no signs of being ready to move.

As for our other pets, we have released the worms and the cricket back into the wild. The worms because I found their box crawling with gnats: harmless but annoying. And the cricket because his keeper seemed to be slacking off in supplying him with fresh grass, which will be hard to find in another few weeks anyway.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Squash Blossoms

A visiting friend saw our pumpkin flowers and mentioned that her Aunt Lena used to love to cook them. I'd heard of sauted squash blossoms, so -- since our pumpkin plants are still spreading across the lawn, even as the nights dip down into the 40s -- I looked up some recipes.

I only gave them a quick glance, but it looked like you could cook any kind of squash blossom, summer or winter, and do basically anything with them. I picked a handful, washed them off, pulled off the woody cap at the bottom (which came along with the stamen, covered in pollen) and threw them on top of my pizza.

The taste was interesting. The only negative is that, having eaten that pizza myself (my husband threatened to take the kids out to eat if I tried to "share" it with them, so they got squash-free pizzas of their own), my mouth started tingling. Apparently those of us with hayfever can suffer a cross-reaction with pumpkin pollen -- at least if they eat as much as I did.

Some ice cream soothed it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Wildlife in our House

I'm not talking about the mice that invade every fall. (Haven't seen the tell-tale signs yet -- probably because it's been in the 70s and 80s here this September!)

But instead of normal pets, we have tiny critters. Most live in recycled plastic jars, the kind mayonaise, pretzels and the like come in.

For instance, we've been raising minnows and other fish in mini aquariums for several years now. Most of our pets (like the goldfish which have grown to Koi size in our plastic backyard "pond") are considered "feeder fish" to real aquarium hobbyists. But the mini tanks, which we try to keep supplied with small snails, stones that harbor beneficial bacteria and aquatic plants, are easy to care for.

This past summer, for my Build a Bug House Program, I got a chance to collect some pet bugs . The basic bug house was based on the book Pets in a Jar by Seymour Simon, but I also created a butterfly pavilion, a bamboo cricket cage, and a worm bin. They made for fun summer projects.

Once the program ended we let the ants in the Two Jar Ant Farm (directions here) go, as well as the ladybugs in the vivarium. But we've still got the cricket (now in a bigger, better jar with a sand surface, a piece of bark to hide under and a stick and a leaf to climb -- see video here) and the worms.

I just checked on the worms, however, and got an unpleasant surprise: our bin (which I keep under the kitchen sink) is crawling with some kind of mites. I rushed the bin outside and looked up our problem, but apparently it's nothing to worry about: all the possible culprits are helpful to the process of breaking down the vegetable scraps in the bin, and none are harmful. So I probably will bring the bin back in before it gets dark and the temperature dips too low.

I WILL harvest the worm castings this week, however, and if I can separate out the worms I'll try keeping them over the winter.

Coming next: Our hermit crab

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Where we've been...

All the action the last couple weeks has been over at the Flickr page, where we've been uploading photos taken for our 100 Species project. As of Thursday we were up to 82, I believe, and I will try to get the photos up in the next few days.

But I did want to share our easy way of identifying species once we've got a decent photo. I've been bringing up the photo on our Flickr page, then opening a new tab and doing a Google Image search using the written description of the organism in question. Then I go back and forth between the tabs comparing photos. This has worked very quickly in several cases so far.

Along with its appearance, it is often helpful to add where it was found to the search words. For instance, I just typed in "green frog brown spots" and then added "New York" when the first listings to come up were in Europe and California.

(Side note: I'm still working on getting the kids to take photos that are useful for identification and look nice. They need a shot of the whole plant, not just the flower or the fruit, and they need reminding about focus, watching out for shadows and ugly stuff in the background. It would help if our lawn wasn't so unkempt, of course.)

For the time being I am saving information I find about the species, including URLs, in the photo descriptions on Flickr. (John has uploaded some of the photos, which explains some of the silly captions.) Eventually we will put photos, descriptions, etc. together in a printed report, and if I can find a good way to do it online as well.

Take a look at our page, and if you have identifications for anything that still has a generic "pink flower" kind of title, feel free to put the name and any useful info in the comments. Thanks!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Our 100 Species Backyard Survey Project

This is the worksheet I made up for our inaugural Biology project. I expect it to take 2-3 weeks.
  1. Make a map of the backyard with landmarks (trees, fence posts, etc.). (You can do the front yard too.) Divide into sections and label each section. Use these section labels in the Place column.
  2. Take a small notebook and number the pages 1-100.
  3. Get a pen and the camera.
  4. Working together, covering one section at a time, go around and catalogue each different time of life form you see. Note whether it is animal, plant, fungus or simpler forms (algae, slime mold, etc.) in the Type column.
  5. As you identify each new species:
    1. Take a photograph of it;
    2. Fill out the chart below;
    3. Mark where you found it by putting a number on the map;
    4. Write a description of it on the numbered page in the notebook.
  6. See how long it takes to come up with 100 different species.
  7. Microscopic species count. You can take a sample of pond water inside to observe under the microscope. Since taking photos may not work, you will have to draw a diagram.
  8. If you don’t know the name of something, look it up later using the photo and description.
  9. When you are finished, analyze the data. Some questions to ask:
    1. Where were the most living things found?
    2. Were certain types found grouped together?
    3. Which kinds seemed to be interdependent (eg, ladybugs and corn)?
  10. Finally, put all the information together in a book.

I also made up a chart for them to fill in. When everything's entered on the computer, we can analyze the data.









A note on what I'm trying to do with this year's homeschooling biology studies:

Looking at the labs required by New York State (just to get some idea of what the high schools are doing), I discovered that not all labs are done in the laboratory! Some are just simulations, or thought experiments. And of course many of the labs are designed so that data is plugged in and results extracted in an identical format for every student. So I'm hoping that our informal observations and experiments will be just as useful as what the kids would have done in school.

I am speaking here, too, as someone who stayed home "sick" from public school whenever we were supposed to do a dissection! About which more in later posts...

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Tree of Life

I just came upon The Tree of Life website which making up a worksheet for the kids to do our Backyard (and Frontyard -- we've got a snake living under the sidewalk, and I saw some slime mold there the other day) Survey.

It looks like a wonderful resource for studying how organisms are related, according to DNA evidence of their evolution. In the Treehouse section in particular are games, webquests, etc. for students created by teachers and as class projects.

Here's the description from the TOL homepage:

The Tree of Life Web Project (ToL) is a collaborative effort of biologists from around the world. On more than 9000 World Wide Web pages, the project provides information about the diversity of organisms on Earth, their evolutionary history (phylogeny), and characteristics. Each page contains information about a particular group of organisms (e.g., echinoderms, tyrannosaurs, phlox flowers, cephalopods, club fungi, or the salamanderfish of Western Australia). ToL pages are linked one to another hierarchically, in the form of the evolutionary tree of life. Starting with the root of all Life on Earth and moving out along diverging branches to individual species, the structure of the ToL project thus illustrates the genetic connections between all living things.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Something to think about when creating a high school biology curriculum

As I decide what I will try to present to my kids this year, I'm coming across advice and lists I've saved in the last few months. Here is something I found on a discussion list for parents of homeschooling high schoolers. The parent looking for teaching suggestions was advised by a biology professor to have the kids develop questions and then search for the answers. He wrote:

And where will the questions come from? Various sources. Here are
thoughts: go to a park; to an aquarium; to a beach; to a natural
history museum (some can be deadly dull, of course); on vacation go to
a desert, a forest, a national park; just go outdoors and look around;
get a bunch of seeds (such as cucumber or sunflower), plant them in
disposable cups (maybe in Perlite) and do things with them (tip them
on their sides, put them across the room from a window, let them grow
in the dark from Day Zero to when they croak, cut off the top of the
plant, whatever) and see what happens and question WHY/HOW it
happened; take advantage of cuts, colds, bruises, allergies, sunburn,
suntan, zits--ANYTHING--to have an excuse to learn what's happening;
ANYTHING that can lead to questions.
He also wrote a random list of questions off the top of his head to
start on if the kids had not developed questions on their own:
Why do antibiotics stop working after a number of years?
Look at a map of Galapagos--why do same birds have diff beaks on
diff islands?
How do we know (or are learning) how different things are related?
How do new species evolve?
What IS a species?
How did life colonize the dry land?

How can you produce a calico cat? Can you just breed them with
each other?
Can two brown-eyed parents produce a blue-eyed child?
Look at those ants out there! What sex are they?

Why is vomitus sour/"burny"?
Why don't our stomach contents digest the stomach lining?
Why does our digestive tract have so many parts?

What is pollen? What does it do?
Why do plants grow toward the light?
What happens if you tip a plant on its side? Why?
Why don't some seeds germinate right away?
Why do poinsettias bloom around Christmas?
(look at root x.s., figure it out (no refs) and ask questions)
How do some plants manage to live where it's very dry?
Could we teach other plants to live where it's very dry?
(plant seeds--cucumber, sunflower, radish--in cups and just do
things with them; design experiments to understand why interesting
things happened)

Musculoskeletal system
Why are bedridden patients likely to break bones?
Why do astronauts have to exercise while in space and
be careful when they come down to Earth?
Why is a popped Achilles tendon serious? What does it do?
How does a broken bone heal?
Whales breathe air--why can't they breathe while on the beach?
Athletes are forever tearing their ACLs. What IS the ACL,
what does it do? What is the problem if it's torn?
Why are some runners better at distance events and others
better at dashes?
Are all the joints in our body structured the same? How do
they differ? Why are they structurally different?
Why are our knees so darn complicated?

Endocrine system
We keep reading about athletes on steroids... what are
steroids, do normally have them in our bodies, what do they do,
what are steroids used for in medicine, what's the fuss
about use by athletes, are there useful artificial steroids... ?

Cardiac system
What is your doctor learning by listening to your heart?
What does your heart do? How?

Respiratory system
How can whales dive so deep and stay down so long?
What do your lungs do? How?

Excretory system
What do your kidneys do? How?
Why do some fish live only in fresh water and others only in

Why are there so many more zebras/etc. than lions/etc.?
What caused the Dust Bowl?
Why is the vegetation on one side of a mountain range so
different from that on the other side?
What drives ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream and the
California Current and what effects do they have?
When a pest (such as the gypsy moth) attacks an area, should
we simply try to kill all of them (everywhere) by spraying?
How does a constantly growing population (people, bacteria in
a bottle, coyotes in a city...) affect the rest of the world?
Why do so many flying insects have black/yellow striped
abdomens? What's going on there? What are the consequences?
What are corals? What are coral reefs? What will they be
like by the time I'm a grandparent?

Why do male dogs pee on trees?
Why do puppies roll over on their backs when a frightening dog
comes along?
Why do snakes/lizards bask in the sun?
Why don't we have to?
How does a digger wasp learn the location of the hole in
the ground that is its nest?
How does an ant manage to lead her nestmates to a food source?
How does a honey bee direct her nestmates to a food source?
What do fireflies accomplish by their flashing?

Nervous system
Why does our foot move when the doc taps our knee?
How do we respond to some things faster than we are aware of them?

Why don't antibiotics work on viruses (use penicillin example)?
How do some viruses make us sick?
Are viruses alive? (note: biologists don't agree--it's a
matter of criteria, and useful to discuss)
Why does penicillin kill bacteria without hurting us?
How does (some drug taken by the child) work to make me better?

MolBiol (NA and proteins)
How did they make the green-glowing kitten?
How did "they" discover that genes are DNA?
What is the genetic code?
How did "they" crack the genetic code? (need an FAQ here
Why do I keep hearing about cracking of more organism's genomes?
What are mutations? How does a mutation (of DNA) cause a
change in the organism (or animal, or human)
What is cancer? How can we treat it?

Why can we vaccinate against (smallpox/polio/mumps/etc.)?
Why can't we vaccinate against (malaria/HIV/etc.)?
Why/how are some people allergic to (ragweed/etc.)?

The "card trick" modeling the London cholera plague [Note: Have to look that one up!]

Why do different cells make different things (pigments, etc.)?
How does a single cell turn into an adult animal/person?
What is cloning?
How can I avoid becoming pregnant?
What is menstruation?

Do all plants have flowers?
Do all plants have seeds?
Do all animals have eyes?
Do all snails live on land?
What do ... eat?
What eats ... ?
Are fungi (or molds) good for anything?
Would it be a good idea to kill all the molds on Earth?
She added: "His wife (a biology major) also suggested having the kids read the
health section in the newspaper. He said that trying to cover all the
material typically attempted in an introductory college biology course
is crazy - the end result is that the scientific process (thinking,
reasoning, making connections, drawing conclusions) is lost and that
instead it's just a lot of facts to memorize which the kids promptly
forget anyway."

Friday, September 5, 2008

Starting Off: A Field Survey

Although I haven't put together my "teaching plan" for the year, I thought I'd start off with a survey of what's living in our backyard. This year I left several patches of our backyard unmowed so that they would grow into meadow. I found many of the bugs I used in my summer Bug House library program just in our meadows. There is also a wealth of plants, which I'd like to document before the autumn die-off.

I'm not sure we're up to it, but here's an incentive to find out what lives in your neighborhood. It's called The 100-Species Challenge and it comes from scsour's weblog. The rules are below, and the idea is to photograph each plant species you come across in your area, identify it, list what you already knew about it and then something new that you learned. An entry doesn't count until it's identified, which means it would take me a long time to get to 100! However, I will have the kids help me start photographing the plants we find (and probably the animals, fungi, etc. as well) and start keeping a list.

1. Participants should include a copy of these rules and a link to this entry in their initial blog post about the challenge. I will make a sidebar list of anyone who notifies me that they are participating in the Challenge.

2. Participants should keep a list of all plant species they can name, either by common or scientific name, that are living within walking distance of the participant's home. The list should be numbered, and should appear in every blog entry about the challenge, or in a sidebar.

3. Participants are encouraged to give detailed information about the plants they can name in the first post in which that plant appears. My format will be as follows: the numbered list, with plants making their first appearance on the list in bold; each plant making its first appearance will then have a photograph taken by me, where possible, a list of information I already knew about the plant, and a list of information I learned subsequent to starting this challenge, and a list of information I'd like to know. (See below for an example.) This format is not obligatory, however, and participants can adapt this portion of the challenge to their needs and desires.

4. Participants are encouraged to make it possible for visitors to their blog to find easily all 100-Species-Challenge blog posts. This can be done either by tagging these posts, by ending every post on the challenge with a link to your previous post on the challenge, or by some method which surpasses my technological ability and creativity.

5. Participants may post pictures of plants they are unable to identify, or are unable to identify with precision. They should not include these plants in the numbered list until they are able to identify it with relative precision. Each participant shall determine the level of precision that is acceptable to her; however, being able to distinguish between plants that have different common names should be a bare minimum.

6. Different varieties of the same species shall not count as different entries (e.g., Celebrity Tomato and Roma Tomato should not be separate entries); however, different species which share a common name be separate if the participant is able to distinguish between them (e.g., camillia japonica and camillia sassanquaif the participant can distinguish the two--"camillia" if not).

7. Participants may take as long as they like to complete the challenge.
You can make it as quick or as detailed a project as you like. I'm planning to blog a minimum of two plants per week, complete with pictures and descriptions as below, which could take me up to a year. But you can do it in whatever level of detail you like.