18 Oct 2020

Science Literacy course for free

 by Paula Johanson

There's so much science being mentioned in the news and social media. But how are we supposed to know the difference between a sensational story and hard facts? 

A new online course in Science Literacy offered by the University of Alberta is ready to help learners spot sound science—an increasingly relevant skill in today’s world of social media. This course is available at no charge. “The purpose of this course is to teach people about the process of science and how it is used to acquire knowledge,” said course host Claire Scavuzzo, researcher in the Department of Psychology.

Students will have the opportunity to learn how wisdom is gained and practiced by Canadian First Nations, Indigenous, and Metis peoples, compared to the westernized process of science. They will also learn how to think critically about scientific claims from a variety of sources.

This online course would be useful for adults or teenage learners, or for a family to study together. There are no prerequisites, and a variety of guest lecturers. The course can be completed at the learner’s own pace—roughly five weeks with five to seven hours per week of study. The five modules of the course are presented with practice quizzes, reflective quizzes, and interactive learning objects that are all available for free. It would be great for anyone who wants to learn about science. Click on this link to read a detailed article about the course, and click on this link to register for free. It's even possible to upgrade and get a certificate of completion!

16 Oct 2020

Learning About Gardening

 by Margriet Ruurs

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make people want to be more self-sufficient.
First, everyone stocked up on toilet paper and flour. You never knew which shelves would be empty the next time you ventured into a supermarket. It even became difficult to buy new laying hens since, suddenly, everyone wanted chickens. And everyone, it seems, wanted to grow their own food to be on the safe side.
Once school was discontinued, my ten year old grandson Nico watched more movies than normal. One of them was a fabulous documentary called Biggest Little Farm which you can find at this link. The film follows ten years of a young couple who buy an acreage and, never having farmed before, turn dead soil into a gorgeous lush farm. The film is inspiring on so many levels, and not just to adults.

Three days after viewing it, Nico came to get me. “I want to run my own farm,” he announced, asking if he could use a flat piece of land on our 5 acres. The piece of our acreage which he selected was outside our deer fencing and thus not a good choice. But we soon found another, better suited piece of level land which is protected from the many deer that roam our island. He staked it off and, after promising to do all the weeding and watering, it was his.

His dad happened to own an old-fashioned plow so he turned the grass. Nico spent the next week on his knees, pulling grass and weeds from clumps of clay.

He designed a garden plan with beds and paths.
Friends donated berries, seeds and seedlings. We also made a trip to a local organic farm for some seedlings which he nurtured in a bay window until the weather turned warm enough for planting.

By early May, in the Pacific Northwest, it was time to plant. Nico chose his own crops: corn, peas, potatoes, squash and more.

He planted, pulled more weeds and watered. He also had to put up a small fence to keep rabbits from helping themselves to his hard earned veggies. All of the weeds he pulled, sometimes helped by his younger brother, were donated to the chickens who munched happily and turned the greens into eggs.

In turn, we put egg shells, coffee grinds and vegetable waste into our composter and mulch compost into the soil. Growing veggies is a never ending circle.

By June, the potato greens were up and the peas were climbing the bamboo stalks. In July the corn grew over his head and the tomato plants had yellow flowers.
By early August Nico was able to harvest the first huge zucchini and share it with his family for dinner.

Hopefully 2021 will be a better year for the world, without a pandemic. But the science of producing your own food is here to stay. And hopefully Nico will be inspired enough to keep growing his own vegetables and munch on snacks that he nurtured himself, from seeds to fruits.


Here are names of two books to consult if you want to start your own garden:

Watch Me Grow! and
Up We Grow! by Deborah Hodge.

9 Oct 2020

POST NUMBER 500!! Pros and Cons of Studying Elsewhere

Here's our latest post, and it's a real milestone. Welcome to the FIVE HUNDREDTH post on our science writing blog! This one's a trip down memory lane.

Pros and Cons of Studying Elsewhere

by Raymond Nakamura

Ecology is a science in which place makes a big difference to what you study. During the pandemic, travel is not advised, so I thought I'd share some memories of when I went to Japan to study, as a kind of thought experiment.

As an undergraduate, I studied zoology as my specialist subject and Japanese language as my minor. I found out from studying French in high school, that if you don't use it, you lose it. One of my Japanese professors told me studying language would be boring, so I should learn it while studying something I was interested in. I figured that since Japan was an archipelago, it would be a good place to study marine biology. Never mind that my lowest grades were in Japanese language and marine biology.

This was back before the Internet, so finding Japanese professors took a bit of effort. I had to go through the library and scour the papercut delivering pages of scientific journals. Eventually, Professor Taiji Kikuchi at the Amakusa Marine Biological Laboratory of Kyushu University accepted me.

So I left my family home in the city of Toronto and packed up to live on my own in a little village in southern Japan. I ended up studying the population ecology of a stalked barnacle, Capitulum mitella

This meant marking more than a hundred individuals that I would measure during every low tide cycle. 

During the winter, that meant going out in the middle of the night.

Sometimes I went further afield to help with studies on endangered species...

...or surveys of less studied habitats, such as Zamami Island in Okinawa.

Sometimes I came across different creatures while doing research or during the course of my travels.

I also had the opportunity to find life in my own home. 

I found that studying disagreeable things is a way to cope with their existence. 

Others were more occasional visitors, such as land crabs, mice, spiders, and centipedes.

I realized I preferred my wildlife outdoors.

That was all many tide cycles ago. I now live in Vancouver, where I am a lapsed biologist, more interested in sharing discoveries by other people than working out my own. I practise Japanese on an app called Duolingo. And when the moon is full, I just think, "Isn't that pretty," instead of, “Gosh, these rocks are cold."  

2 Oct 2020

Anatomy for education

 by Paula Johanson

How are children and youths to learn about bodies for health and sex education? This topic is a matter of careful thought for many parents. And there are resources to help families with learning the science of anatomy for health and sex education.

Some of these resources are formal and written about the science of how this knowledge helps people. The United Nations World Health Organization has an e-book on International technical guidance on sexuality education, available for free download. Click on this link to find their page with links to this free e-book in English, French, Spanish, Japanese, and Russian, and also a link to another page with several more free articles to download in English.

For people needing something more oriented to family learning, there's a whole page of resources recommended by doctors on body knowledge and more available at this link from Planned Parenthood. This list includes recommended books for parents to read on their own and books they can share with their children.

Some teenagers and parents find the website Scarleteen to be useful, with articles on bodies, health, gender, relationships, and more. Scarleteen has been online for over twenty years. While it's not a place for doing science, it's a place for learning. It also has places to ask questions, including a message board and live chat.

Among the newest resources now available is We Are Beautiful, with a website at this link. The organisers of this website are concerned about a lack of educational material that shows the diversity of our bodies. As they note, some people worry that their bodies are ugly. This website has images (in green or purple) of body parts based on adults of many ages and shapes, to show the variety of shape that is normal. These images are also free downloads for a 3D printer.

Even adults who think they know all about their bodies can find things to learn from these books and websites, to improve their knowledge and health.

25 Sep 2020

Terrifying Speed

 According to Wikipedia, the fastest roller coaster in the world is called Formula Rossa. It’s in Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi, and it reaches a speed of 240km/hour. 

 Picture by Jazon88  🅒Copyright CCBY-SA 3.0

Definitely too frightening a ride for me. There’s speculation and some research suggesting that the DRD4 gene, which has an effect on dopamine receptors, influences thrill-seeking behaviours. It seems clear to me that I don’t have that gene.

But there’s a faster ride than Formula Rossa, right here in Toronto. More than four times as fast. This one travels in a circle, at a speed of over 1,100 km/hour. Unlike the Formula Rossa, this ride has no height restrictions, doesn’t require a seat belt and is free. And we’re not afraid of this one. In fact we’re all already on it. As you may have guessed: we're all rotating at that speed around the axis of the earth. At the equator they're going even faster. Their speed is over 1,650 km/hour.

That speed is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The earth is traveling around the sun at 107,000 km/hour. Along with the sun, we’re moving towards other stars at 74,000 km/hour. As part of the milky way galaxy we’re spinning at 885,000 km/hour. Our galaxy is moving towards the Andromeda galaxy at 405,000 km/hour; and also towards the Hydra galaxy at around 2 million km/hour!

So the question is: why does a piddly speed of 240 km/hour scare the heck out of me, while I don’t even notice a speed of millions of km/hour. The answer – thank you Professor Einstein – is that speed is relative. I can’t actually tell if I’m whizzing around at a million km/hour, or if I’m sitting still and the universe is whizzing around me. 

What does make a difference is acceleration. I can tell – thank you Professor Newton – when a force is acting on me and changing my velocity.So when the back of my seat on Formula Rosso punches me in the back and accelerates me from 0 to 240 km/hour in under 5 seconds, I know all about it.

And that’s why I won’t set foot on Formula Rosso!

18 Sep 2020

CRISPR and Kids

 by Yolanda Ridge


When I say my new book is about CRISPR, most people look confused. Going on to explain that CRISPR is a biotechnology used to edit DNA doesn’t help much. Sometimes, people make reference to GMOS—which are not quite the same—but mostly it’s just:

The first two chapters of CRISPR: A Powerful Way to Change DNA  aim to clear up this confusion. The first chapter provides an overview on chromosomes, genes and DNA. This information’s targeted at 10th grade readers to tie in with the high school curriculum. Chapter two gets into detail about how gene editing with CRISPR/Cas9 actually works.

The rest of the book explores the potential applications of CRISPR technology. I ask a lot of questions and encourage readers of all ages to consider the pros and cons of gene editing on everything from mosquitoes to potatoes to humans. To give readers a preview of this, I wrote a set of articles on how CRISPR can be used to change:




Space Travel


Before writing CRISPR: A Powerful Way to Change DNA, I didn’t know much about gene editing despite my background in genetics. I hadn’t given much thought to how CRISPR could be used, how it should be used, or how it should be regulated either.

My opinions are still mixed on this. But one thing is clear to me: it’s important that we all understand just how much CRISPR has the power to change… everything.

Yolanda Ridge is a middle grade author and science writer from Rossland, BC. Visit her website at www.yolandaridge.com to find out more.

Photo credits:

Confused Smiley Clipart by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

12 Sep 2020

Geocaching - A Fun Way to Enjoy the Outdoors

by Margriet Ruurs

Geocaching - A Fun Way to Enjoy the Outdoors

What is geocaching?

Geocaching can be called a worldwide treasure hunt where you use a GPS to search for hidden objects. It’s a fun and exciting way to enjoy the great outdoors. Geocaching combines the sport of walking with the excitement of discovering treasure. ‘Geo’ means ‘earth’ and ‘cache’ means ‘hidden’ in French.

child in forest

Nico is 10 years old and an avid geocacher. “Geocaching has taught me all about navigating with maps, how to use GPS and coordinates,” he says, “I’ve become a better hiker and better at spotting things because of it.”

This sport will get you outdoors and actively walking, whether it is in a city or in a forest.

The easiest way to get started is to go to the website:


You can download the app on your phone or tablet. Using maps, it allows you to navigate geocaches anywhere by GPS. You pinpoint your current location and the app will show you where, near you, there are hidden treasures. After creating a (free) account, it takes you to your home location, from where you can navigate anywhere in the world to see caches.

Not only will you see the approximate location on your map, there is also a description and a hint of the location and container for which you will be searching. The coordinates are such that you will need to use your eyes, and your legs, to find the actual spot once you get close. The map brings you to within a few meters from the container and that’s when the real search begins. Searching is half the fun. Perhaps the container is inside a post, or under some branches. The coordinates might lead you to within 5 or 10 meters but then you have to start turning over rocks and peeking under logs, using the information you read in the description.

A traditional cache will be a small container, a tin or a plastic box. Inside you will likely find a tiny logbook in which you can record your name and the date you found it. There will also likely be some small ‘treasures’ - a coin, a toy, a pin…. You can pick one and leave a new gift for the next person so come prepared with some tiny gifts in your pocket to leave behind. You might also want to carry a pen or pencil in your pocket.

Besides traditional caches, there are many different caches, including trackables. This comes in the shape of a key chain which you can purchase. On it is a code. Once you enter it online, and then hide it in a cache, you can track its location. Online you can learn where the trackable came from. It is given a name and a description. This also tells you what the owner would like his or her trackable to accomplish. For instance, Nico has a trackable out there named Frogo the Froggie Travel Buddy. He hopes his frog hops around the world and that it will return home in 5 years. Meanwhile, he can follow its location online. A fun and unique way to learn about the world.

There are many more types of caches. And, once you know what you’re doing, you can start making and hiding your own.

Once the new location, description and hint were approved, Nico had to go hide his creation well and it became an official cache. One of thousands of caches around the world that you can now go out and find!

Nico’s geocache: https://coord.info/GC8PWVW

To learn more, visit: https://www.geocaching.com/play