Christmas Tree Science: Part II

Image Source:

Overview: Evergreen trees have needles that are considered modified leaves. These needles help the tree endure seasonal fluctuations. This activity builds off of a previous post. Now that you have identified your tree, take time to explore its needles a little more closely.

Intended Learning Outcomes: At the completion of this activity you will be able to:

  • Describe major features of evergreen tree needles.
  • Make your own air freshener and/or essential oils from evergreen tree needles.

Materials Needed: Evergreen tree branch (freshly cut work best), magnifying glass, other items needed as listed


Observations: Examine the needles of a fresh evergreen tree branch with the magnifying glass. Take notice of the waxy coat that covers the needles. How do these leaves differ from those of non-evergreen trees? What do you think is the purpose of the wax? 

Experiments: Many evergreen  trees have a wonderful scent. Try to extract the scents or essential oils from the needles by following the steps noted in the links below. 

Fill Your House with Aroma of Evergreen Trees

Extract Essential Oils from Evergreen Trees 

Enjoy the nice aromas! Happy Holidays!


Christmas Tree Science: Part I

Image Source:

If you purchase live Christmas trees for the holidays, do you take note of which species of tree you selected? This activity encourages those of all ages to use their observation skills to identify their Christmas tree, and is a simple way to incorporate science learning at home during any holiday downtime.

Intended Learning Outcomes: After completing this activity, you will be able to describe the major features and species of Christmas trees being sold today, as well as identify the species of your personal tree.

Step 1. Remove a small, inconspicuous branch from your tree and place on a white sheet of paper. 

Step 2. Identify the type of tree by referring to the guides through the links below.  Be sure to focus on the shapes and colors of the needles and branches.

Five Types of Live Christmas Trees

National Christmas Tree Association

Step 3. Answer the questions below.

  • What are major species of Christmas trees being sold today? How are they the similar? How are they different?
  • Which species of Christmas tree do you have, and how do you know?
  • What features do you think make a nice Christmas tree?

Step 4. Hold onto your branch to complete the next featured activity.

Step 5. Lastly, don’t forget to recycle your tree at the end of the season!

Hang On! Ways to Encourage Retention Along the STEM Pipeline 

Examine the photo of this artistic display. What do you notice about the figures climbing up the wall? Some of them have climbed greater heights than others, and each is still holding onto their rope, as they make their way to the top. 

    How can we encourage a similar phenomenon in STEM education–that is, for students to hang on? Well, we know from experience that if STEM retention issues are left unaddressed, the results are typically unfavorable – low numbers of STEM employees entering the workforce and lack of diversity, among other issues.

    While there is no quick fix, we can encourage students to hang on to STEM by harnessing their existing and/or developing interest at various levels.

    Here are some ways:

    Infants: Encourage sensory play through exposure to different sights, sounds, and textures to play upon their amazing perceptual acuity.

    Toddlers/Two’s: Now mobile, have them take a more hands-on approach to exploring natural phenomena outdoors. Support problem-solving and engineering design through activities such as shape sorting and building with large blocks. Let them experiment – they are natural scientists.

    Preschoolers: Support their natural curiosity. Answer the “why” questions. Provide them with opportunities to explore and ask questions about the world around them. Let them build, create and innovate. Encourage early skill development in math and reading.

    Elementary: Show them diverse role models in STEM, and take learning to the next level by challenging them with more problem-solving and scientific experimentation. Hone and develop foundational skills in math and reading.

    Middle School: Continue dispelling myths about STEM only being for particular types of students. Encourage active involvement in science fairs and extracurricular STEM activities such as robotics, brick clubs, and others.   

    High School: Advise them to take advanced coursework in STEM areas to support future college success. Have them seek opportunities to “do” research, computer science, and other activities in STEM.

    College: Mentor and support STEM students throughout their earliest years when they are most likely to change majors away from STEM. Encourage them to seek out advanced opportunities in STEM (research, internships, etc.)

    The list can continue throughout post-college years, but we’ll save that for another day. Let’s help our children and students…hang on to STEM!

    Put STEM in the New Year!

      Image source:

    As we approach 2016, consider how to incorporate STEM learning in the new year. 

    Here are some ideas:

    S: Science-Seek out educational science activities at local science centers, museums and libraries. 

    T: Technology-Learn beginning coding and how to make simple apps. (e.g. Kodable, Scratch,, Bitsbox)

    E: Engineering-Explore ways to learn about engineering design. Check out PBS Kids Design Squad.

    M: Mathematics-Hone and develop math skills. (e.g. Bedtime Math, eduPad iTooch apps)

    The summer is also a great time for adolescents to attend a STEM-based camp.

    Happy New Year in STEM!

    Citizen Science: Use Technology to Track Fall Foliage


    Photo credit: turning mill pond 2 via photopin (license)

    Learning Objectives: To develop observational skills and assess the extent of Fall foliage in a given area.

    Deciduous trees lose their leaves each Fall through a biological process known as senescence. Prior to the falling of a leaf from a tree, green chlorophyll breaks down, exposing other pigments. This results in the remarkable colors seen during Autumn in some areas. When senescence occurs, the cells of the stems die and the leaf falls off of the tree.

    Like most processes, losing leaves takes time for a tree. Using observation skills, you can track the fall foliage in your area and record your findings in an app such as Leaf Peepr. Based upon the summative ratings of other viewers as well as your own data inputs, you can determine whether leaves are “green,” “turning,” “moderate,” “peak,” “fading,” or “gone” in your area or another location.

    Next steps? Use this data to analyze trends in leaf foliage patterns over time in different areas, or simply to plan a Fall trip!


    Yankee Foliage

    Make Your Own Sunprint and Engage in Science

    photo credit: Sunprint via photopin (license)


    • To describe how to make artwork by capturing solar rays.
    • To create a sunprint.
    • To design an experiment using sunprint paper.

    There are a variety of STEM projects that involve harnessing energy from the sun. One example is making artwork using sunprint paper that is sensitive to ultraviolet light.

    You can be creative and put any object(s) on the sunprint paper and expose it to the sun. See the article How It Works by for a step-by-step guide on creating a sunprint.

    A solid object will block the sun’s rays, such that the paper underneath that respective area stays blue, while the exposed area turns colorless.

    This process happens because molecules in the paper are sensitive to ultraviolet light. When exposed to solar light two molecules interact and form a colorless compound, allowing the white paper to show through. The areas blocked from the sun remain blue. Several other changes occur when the exposed paper is placed in water. The blue molecules float away and the colorless compound turns blue. This creates remarkable contrast. 

    Beyond making artwork you can perform science experiments with sunprint paper. For example, using sunprint paper, one can test how effective different sunscreens claim to be at blocking the sun. See Activity.

    One can conceive of other projects to conduct with these special papers. For instance, nowadays there are some sports shirts that claim to block UV rays. Do they really? Could we put these on top of the paper and see  if there is any difference compared to regular t-shirts? What about sunglasses that claim to block UV light? How effective really are they? 

    Although we are unable to see UV light with our human eyes, it’s there. The creation of a sunprint attests to the existence of this natural phenomenon.  Let’s consider it in STEM education.