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


Do a JELL-O Brain Dissection


Learning Objective: To identify major parts of the brain.

One of the coolest plastic molds for JELL-O I have seen thus far that looks somewhat realistic is that of a human brain. You can purchase one online. I bought mine on Amazon. You can also find excellent recipes online  for making the brain on various cooking sites as shown at the website address given below.

A few key tips for making the brain include spraying the mold with nonstick cooking spray before adding gelatin so that the brain comes out cleanly when ready. Also, it is important to place the mold upside down in a bowl in the refrigerator so that it does not tip over as the gelatin hardens.  

 Using a diagram of the brain, have learners identify the sulci and gyri (grooves and bumps) in addition to the locations of the major lobes. Have them slice the brain into left and right cerebral hemispheres to perform a simple dissection as future brain surgeons of tomorrow. 

There are so many usages of this JELL-O brain including educational purposes, parties, brain demos, and more. I dare you to eat this one!


Recipe for JELL-O Brain

Images of Brain Lobes 

Make a 3D JELL-O Animal Cell



Learning Objective: To learn the parts of the cell by creating a model.

Want a hands-on activity for learning the parts of the cell? Make a model cell using JELL-O.

A light-colored JELL-O can be set in a bowl or clear ziplock gallon bag. When using a bowl, place various edible and tasty food items that resemble cell structures on top of the gelatin after it solidifies (see links for suggested items). For a bag, the cell parts can be included before the gelatin solidifies. 

Going through the process of learning cell parts by associating them with a food can aid the learning process. Next steps can involve learning the functions of these structures and applying this knowledge in a useful context. 

In addition to serving as a model, the great thing about these cells is that depending on the food they are made up of, they can last for several days in a refrigerator and be eaten if edible. Yummy.


JELL-O Enchanted Learning Craft

JELL-O Animal Cell-BioEyes

Building a Cell You Can Eat-Northern Arizona University 

Do Real Science Outside of the Laboratory

IMG00020-20100924-1236Learning Objective: To analyze scientific data as a volunteer scientist online.

Would you like to make a difference in the scientific community?  Anyone can be a citizen scientist by analyzing authentic scientific data online.

How does this work? Scientists deposit their large data sets collected in the laboratory, the field or other setting on Zooniverse and request help from the public to analyze this data. After completing a brief tutorial, any citizen is well on their way to making an important contribution.

Topics range from space and climate science, to biology, and physics. Right now some research in which you can participate includes examining the moon’s surface, targeting cancer cells, finding spot explosions on the sun, and identifying species of organisms that live on the ocean floor.

The usages of Zooniverse are numerous. From personal interest to classroom activities in particular topics within STEM education, this is a unique 21st century way to do science.



Celebrate National DNA Day by Smashing Strawberries


Learning Objective: To be able to describe how to extract DNA. 

DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, is the genetic material that serves as a blueprint for the creation of proteins, the workers in our cells. DNA  consists of our hereditary information that is passed on from one generation to the next. We receive half of our DNA from mom and half from dad.

The sequence of bases of this very important macromolecule can play a large role in determining many things including our physical appearance and our risk for disease.

In 2015 we know more than we have ever known about DNA. We have the map of all genes for our species as well as that of many others. We know that there are even factors beyond our DNA that can determine whether or not our genes are turned on or off. Our fascination with this macromolecule has led us to create kits to determine our ancestry by sequencing our DNA from a cheek swab.

So, what is DNA really like? A classic, simple experiment that you can do at home allows you to easily remove and observe DNA from a common fruit, the strawberry.

The extraction procedure is simple, you break open the cells and nuclei (where DNA is housed) of the strawberry and remove the DNA by making it to come out of solution. All you need to do is follow the steps shown in the video below and you will see DNA in no time.

Happy National DNA Day!

Additional Resource

How to Extract DNA from a Strawberry (

Earth Day Activity: Design Your Own Earthship

Learning Objectives: To design and describe the features of a sustainable house. 

Most of us live in houses and apartments where the living spaces are not sustainable.  What would the ultimate sustainable dwelling place or earthship look like? This activity answers such questions.

First, start by first performing a search with key terms such as “sustainable homes” or “earthship.” Children can use a safe search engine such as Safe Search Kids. Find several reliable sources and use these to develop a list of various attributes that make a home sustainable (e.g. made from recycled or natural materials, uses limited nonrenewable resources, etc.). Next, if money is no object, write in detail the specific features of your own sustainable house.

Make a sketch of this house and label its important attributes. Explain the reasoning behind why you chose this particular design. and how this house is more Earth-friendly than a typical house in your area.

There is a lot of potential to witness creative output in this activity. Students may design homes with solar panels, greenhouses, and more.

Happy Earth Day!

Why is Dye so Pleasing to the Eye?

IMG_2817Learning Objectives:

  • To demonstrate how dyes work in acidic environments by attaching to other molecules through bonding.
  • To describe why dye is so pleasing to the eye.

The other day I tried to think of a creative way to make ladybug eggs for a STEM activity for children. Ladybug eggs are typically yellow and oblong in shape. How perfect, I thought, to use rice. I dyed the white rice in my pantry yellow using food coloring, and did not need to make a trip to the grocery store just to buy yellow rice. Took about…oh…10 minutes from start to finish.

Whether you dye rice or eggs, the process works because the color molecules attach to the surface of your item by forming bonds. In adding an acid such as vinegar to the mix, you create a more optimal environmental “soup” of positively-charged hydrogen ions enabling the negatively-charged dye to bind to the surface even better.

These colors look magnificent to us because of the science of light absorption and reflection. Dye molecules absorb white light and reflect light of various wavelengths. We see the reflected visible light as colors that are pleasing to our eyes.

All you need is a plastic bowl, white rice, vinegar, food coloring, a plastic spoon, and some paper towels or a paper plate. Add approximately 1 tsp of vinegar to about 1 cup of rice and mix. Add a few drops of food coloring and continue mixing until the dye completely covers the rice. Allow the rice to dry by spreading it out on a paper towel or paper plate for several minutes.

Now that you are a dye guru, don’t stop there. Try to use different colors. Put the rice in closed plastic containers to make shakers. Glue the rice on paper to make creative patterns. This activity can also be used in sensory play.  Further, placing some colored rice in a nice glass jar with a bow also makes a unique decorative homemade gift.

So very colorful…so very pleasing to the eyes.


How to Dye Rice for Sensory Play

Eggs to Dye for – Science Friday