Today we continue the STEM Tuesday Spin Off guest blogger addition to the MG Book Village blog. It’s time once again for a member of the STEM Tuesday group at From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors to share a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) post tying middle grade STEM books, resources, and the STEM Tuesday weekly posts to the familiar, everyday things in the life of middle graders.
We look at the things in life we often take for granted. We peek behind the curtain and search underneath the hood for the STEM principles involved and suggest books and/or links to help build an understanding of the world around us. The common, everyday thing is the hub of the post and the “spin-offs” are the spokes making up our wheel of discovery.
In this month of August, STEM author and educational consultant Carolyn DeCristofano brings us the “Oh, Those Summer Nights” edition of the STEM Tuesday Spin Off. She takes us from a summer evening to books highlighting several themes: creatures of the night; looking up with wonder; not so dark nights; summer and the world at large; classic summer games; and summer cookouts.
When I was a child, nothing seemed to thrum with magic more than a summer evening. While I’m sure most nights probably were simple, ordinary events of which I took no special note, those that stick in my memory were sublime. These are the ones that define my image of a summer night. If we are lucky, a summer evening might grace us with subtle sensory detail, a connection to nature, and a link to the human community around us and the ones that precede us. And so much of this relates to the stuff of STEM!
Creatures of the Night
Mark Wilson’s Owling : Enter the World of the Mysterious Birds of the Night takes us on a journey to get to know owls, offering detailed facts about these beloved birds and explaining the parts of their anatomy and physiology that make them so successful. Did you know that owls’ ears are positioned asymmetrically, and that this gives them a unique ability to hone in on their prey? This also helps explain the head-turning habit of these birds of prey. (See Page 15.) A series of two-page spreads continue to examine the features of the owl that contribute to its owliness, and its ability to hunt so well. Other sections address owl lifestyles (not all are nocturnal), various species (!), and, most connected to our outdoor experience, ways of spotting evidence of owls nearby. A favorite section of mine is the set of tips—and rules of owl etiquette—for responsibly carrying on a conversation with your owl neighbors. And in case the reader is inspired to dive more deeply into exploring these amazing creatures, Wilson includes a section that highlights specific individuals and their owl-oriented careers. Helpful diagrams and stunning photos round out the adventure.
Of course, with the weather warm a lot of us head outdoors, some of us trekking away from the city; some others just stepping outside into our own backyards. And being outside in the evening gives us an opportunity to tune in to creatures of the night—the nocturnal beasts that hunt, hide, sing, and soar all around us, whether we notice or not. Look up at dusk and you may see swooping bats. Listen carefully and you might hear owls hooting.
Tom Uhlman’s photographs serve up a visual treat in Mary Kay Carson’s The Bat Scientists, featuring these nocturnal mammals and those who study them. For example, Page 42 features a close-up photo of a hibernating tri-colored, iridescent, tiny droplets of water coating its fur. The text and pictures give the reader a sense of tramping through caves to investigate these creatures alongside the scientists whose work is to know these animals up close and personal. Much more than a naturalist travelogue, this book digs into the serious science of bats. For example, she explores the “great white plague”, or white-nose syndrome, which threatens the survival of bat populations. It would be fun to read Owling and The Bat Scientists together, comparing and contrasting these nocturnal flyers through the scientific lens.
Of course, you might not want to get up close and personal with all of the critters hanging around on a summer night. Mosquitoes, for example, are best studied from afar. Unless you happen to be zooming in on them in Alexandra Siy and Dennis Kunkel’s Mosquito Bite. Featuring Kunkel’s stunning (and now classic) scanning electron microscopy, the book provides a great example of how technology can extend our ability to study the world around us.
Looking Up with Wonder
Of course, on a summer evening, the world around us includes the night sky. If you are lucky enough to be in a dark-sky area on a clear night, you can’t help but look up and revel in the night lights. Stars take center stage and, if you are like many people contemplating the night sky, you will start to try to pick out the patterns of stars that have been recognized and named for millennia. Dot to Dot in the Sky: Stories in the Star (Joan Marie Galat) provides a primer to the (mostly Western culture) northern star patterns and their lore.
If you find yourself wanting to know more about what you see in the night sky, you might want to check out my own National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas, which features facts and figures on what you might spy in the sky—stars and constellations, the Milky Way’s glow, some planets, comets, meteors, and satellites, a galaxy or two–as well as features we cannot observe, even with a backyard telescope, such as the Oort Cloud, most dwarf planets, exoplanets, and countless distant galaxies. This book gives some attention as well to the mathematics of the scale of the universe as well as the technologies that help us explore it.
If sky gazing puts you in the mood to contemplate our universe’s beginnings, you might enjoy Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck that Became Spectacular, which combines Michael Carroll’s fabulous illustrations with (my) verse and prose to introduce readers to the Big Bang.
Not So Dark Nights
Of course, the ability to revel in cosmic beauty or enjoy nocturnal creatures depends on the night being dark. And dark nights are, alas, falling prey to bright lights that we humans use to illuminate parking lots, buildings, streets, back yards, and more. Night pollution has become a problem in many communities, albeit one that many fail to notice. That’s why Joan Marie Galat’s Dark Matters: Nature’s Reaction to Light Pollution is such an interesting read. Parts are like a memoir of Galat’s relationship to the night sky and her journey from a child playing in the dark to a graduate with an ecology degree, making it easy for the reader to relate to the core topic of the book. Galat shares with us the biological and physical ramifications of having so much human-created light infiltrating the night. She shares how sea turtles, fireflies, bats, frogs, birds, and humans struggle with the effects of artificial lighting, and explores how some of this may be addressed. It’s a unique take on experiencing a summer (or winter) night.
Of course, we wouldn’t have light pollution without artificial lighting, which brings a lot of convenience and good to people, despite its negative impacts. Why not explore one of the key players in the technological revolution of lighting and electricity? Thomas Edison for Kids: His Life and Ideas, by Laurie Carlson, provides a substantial historical and experiential exploration of the inventor’s life and the technologies he developed.
Summer and the World at Large
Of course, as we sit outside on a summer evening, losing ourselves in our own world and the cosmos beyond, somewhere else it’s wintertime. Lest we stay lost in that personal bubble, it’s time to stretch out and think abut the world at large. Cynthia Light Brown and Patrick M. McGinty’s Mapping and Navigation: Explore the History and Science of Finding Your Way can help us open our eyes to the world around us, recalling how big it is—and also providing another example of how deeply technology has changed human experience and the world at large. Chapter 7, “Space: Navigating the Final Frontier,” makes a perfect bridge from summer stargazing to navigation and map making, and Chapter 4, “Mapping and Satellites: GPS and Landsat,” reminds us that the little blips of light that slowly slip across the night sky are up there doing something—sometimes helping us map the world on which we stand.
Classic Summer Games
And in the summer, the world on which we stand is sometimes hot. Very, very hot. It’s nice to cool off with a sweet treat—ice cream, anyone?—or maybe a frolic with water. Super-Soakers are always great fun. So is the story of the man behind their invention, as told in Chris Barton’s Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. The super-soaker is a summery example of the lighter side of technology, but Lonnie’s tale reveals some serious thinking and hard work. The child who created his own rockets became the teen who constructed his own sound systems for summer parties and the engineer who figured out how to keep a steady power supply going on the Galileo space mission. In his quest for a better air conditioner, he came across another cool idea—a super-soaker water gun. Now in the heat of summer, we can stop and thank Lonnie for the entertainment and the relief from the heat.
Summer games and star gazing are part of summer fun, yet many a summer evening wouldn’t be complete without a cookout. Enter Jodi Wheeler-Toppen and Carol Tennant’s Edible Science: Experiments You Can Eat and Anna Leigh’s 30-Minute Edible Science Projects. You won’t just be whipping up Wheeler-Toppen and Tennant’s Orange Mayonnaise recipe for a unique twist on a coleslaw; you’ll be emulsifying liquids (as well as finding out what that means, and how it works). You can tap into osmosis to create a perfect fruit syrup to serve over homemade ice cream–with recipes, projects, and explanations of what’s going on when you make that cream chill out, courtesy of both books. Leigh also offers recipes for homemade marshmallows to compare from a materials science perspective. If you have extras, you might want to use them in Wheeler-Toppen and Tennant’s “Inflatable Marshmallow” activity. Wash it all down with one of the beverages from Leigh’s “Make Your Own Soda” project.
If it rains on the big night of the cookout? Cook in. Both books provide plenty of food and food for STEM thought to while away a summer evening. Then curl up or get active with any of the great books featured in this installment of STEM Tuesday Spinoffs. No matter where you are, no matter what books you read, no matter where your own thoughts take you, see if you and your inner child can awaken to the magic of a summer evening.
Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano is the author of nationally acclaimed STEM-themed books for kids from 3 to 13 and up. In addition to National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas and Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck That Became Spectacular (mentioned above), her middle grade book A Black Hole is NOT a Hole is a popular favorite. Her books for younger kids include Running on Sunshine: How Does Solar Energy Work? published in 2018 by HarperCollins Children. Carolyn is also a STEM education consultant whose work has contributed to several National Science Foundation – funded curriculum and exhibit projects. She is a warmly received, accessible professional development provider (has bags, will travel), and recently co-launched a new educational research company, STEM Education Insights. She has been a blogger for STEM Tuesday since its inception. When she’s not immersed in thinking about STEM, she might be found trying her best to keep up at an Old Time jam session, running her own edible (not necessarily science) experiments in the kitchen, or, if the season is right, enjoying the magic of a summer evening.
Image of girl being splashed by water in Spin Off wheel diagram is “Sploosh!” by Monkey Mash Button and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (image cropped). All other images in the Spin Off wheel diagram are courtesy of Pixabay.