15 Jan 2021

STEAM Benefits of Stop Motion Animation

by Joan Marie Galat  

I wasn’t looking for a new hobby when I discovered how fun it is to play with stop motion animation. Inspired by a friend’s video of a jigsaw puzzle completing itself, I decided to learn more about the technique of moving static objects in small increments and photographing each change. Playing back a series of frames makes objects appear to move, and you have animation.

Stop motion is a useful STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) building activity for the learners in your life, and intriguing because you can make anything appear to move! It’s easy to get started using free phone apps, such as iMotion. Common props include clay figures, Lego, and paper cut-outs. You can also alter images in increments on a whiteboard and photograph each change through the app. I like the challenge of using household objects. This no-shopping route is pandemic-friendly. You can take part without leaving home and spend as much time as like honing your skills. One of my first attempts was to make one of my books climb a flight of stairs.
 Next, I used letter tiles to announce a new book.

Then I tried to get fancy.
As well as encouraging creative expression, stop motion is an effective tool for illustrating science, as it requires breaking concepts into parts. Suppose you decide to demonstrate planet movement in our solar system. Your process would include arranging the planets in order, setting scaled distances to the Sun, and demonstrating speed of movement.

As you experiment, practical math themes arise. How can you best sequence images to tell a story? What happens if you move an object in smaller or larger increments? How do images present if you speed or slow your number of frames per second?

Engineering comes into play as creators brainstorm approaches and solutions. Like engineers, animators must revise and try again before sharing results. Animating science and engineering concepts puts art into learning, keeping students interested. It’s easy to work literacy skills in too, as you storyboard your ideas. Stop motion endeavors build technological expertise, encouraging students to experience media from a creator’s perspective. This encourages critical thinking, when consuming media. How did they do that? How can I find out? 

Stop motion was used to make Isle of Dogs, Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Lego Movie, Shaun the Sheep, and many other films. You can find plenty of examples on YouTube including a few on my channel, such as Alien Telescope Invasion.
For more ideas on how to get creative using engineering, check out Solve This! Wild and Wacky Challenges for the Genius Engineer in You (National Geographic Kids).

10 Jan 2021


 Comets have always mystified people looking up into the night sky. When Comet Hyakutake was blazing across the night sky in 1996, I was lucky enough to be living on a farm an hour's drive north of Edmonton. For my family, the sky above our farm was PLENTY dark for comet-watching. We didn't need to be told where to look. The comet was big, and plenty bright enough to see.

image of comet Hyakutake
image by E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes-Kepler-Observatory, Linz, Austria (http://www.sternwarte.at)

On several evenings that winter we took sleeping bags out into the yard and lay on the snow, looking as the fuzzy ball of light in the sky grew bigger till it looked as big as the full Moon. We took turns with a telescope and a pair of binoculars to get a closer look. Comet Hyakutake had a wispy tail, too, that stretched till it looked as long as the Big Dipper across the sky. That wispy, hairy-looking tail on a fuzzy ball is why we use the word "comet" to describe them. "Comet" is a way to say "hairy star" in Latin. Even the Egyptian pharaohs 4,000 years ago called comets by their word for "long hair."

Our family was not the only one looking for information about comets on the Internet. What was a comet? Where did they come from? What were they made of? We found lots of sites with information from NASA and observatories. One of the best websites was written by a Canadian observatory with a program called The Centre of the Universe. The comet moved on and faded from sight, but I was still interested.

The very next year, 1997, Comet Hale-Bopp blazed across the sky. There's a great story at this link about how it was discovered by two people on the same night, who were looking in the right direction. It was wonderful to lay out in our snowy yard again with our sleeping bags and telescope and binoculars, and once again watch an amazing comet. It felt like we could actually SEE the comet moving and its wispy tail fluttering behind it.

But it was hard to get our kids to stay outside for more than about twenty minutes. Yup, this was a mysterious and fascinating object in the night sky! But they had seen the previous amazing comet just a year ago. After half an hour, they were cold enough to want to go inside. They promised to make hot chocolate -- enough for all of us. They knew I'm a science fan and just had to lay out there for a while longer.

I'm still a science fan. I still look up into the night sky, tracking planets and comets. As well, I go to the websites for space probes that have gone through comet tails like Ulysses, or the newer ones that have visited comets, like Rosetta and its lander Philae. On Twitter, I follow messages tweeted about space probes visiting the asteroids Bennu and Ryugu. There's so much to learn about space probes! And I'm still learning where to look.

1 Jan 2021

Love forests? Thank fungus!

At first glance, the mushrooms we see popping up on the forest floor may appear pretty insignificant. They’re lovely, sure, but most are small and rubbery, and they disappear pretty quickly during dry periods.

As it happens though, these little nubbins are crucial to our forests’ very SURVIVAL. How is this possible? Let’s dig a bit deeper. There are thousands of mushroom species, which are part of the Kingdom Fungi. Most live in the soil or on other living things like trees, and they feed mainly on dead matter. Unlike animals, they digest food outside their bodies, using chemicals to break down their meal before consuming it.

clumps of mushrooms grow from a tree stump in a forest
Trees and mushrooms help each other. Guess what else they have in common? A fruit to plant ratio!

Yes, some cause disease, but there are so many more helpful mushrooms than harmful ones. Our debt to our fungal friends goes back hundreds of millions of years, when life first started moving out of the oceans and onto land. Plants could not have made that leap without mushrooms first creeping onto the rocks and digesting them into nutrients (i.e. plant food, like phosphorus or magnesium). This allowed plants to move in, dry off, and, over millions of years, diversify into the incredible environments we enjoy today.

There are two main ways that forests STILL depend on mushrooms:

  1. Mushrooms decompose dead things. Think of all the leaves that fall and the plants and animals that die in the forest every year. Without decomposers, they would just lie there, eventually piling up enough to smother the forest itself. Luckily, fungi break it all down to nutrients that get recycled back into the forest system, supporting new life. Other critters like worms and beetles decompose dead things too, but — not to play favourites or anything — mushrooms do it the best.
  2. Many mushrooms actually feed trees. That seems strange- what could fleshy little mushrooms have to offer towering trees? Here’s the thing: the mushrooms we see are only the reproductive bits attached to the main fungal body — called mycelium — which can be ENORMOUS! They’re similar to apples in this way, they make up just a small part of the entire apple tree.

The mycelium stays mostly out of sight — underground or inside trees — and is made up of thin, quickly-growing strands that look a bit like cobwebs. They can squeeze their way into the tiniest underground nooks and crannies, and are about 100 times better at getting water and nutrients from the soil than are the relatively shorter, stubbier tree roots.

So mushrooms gather water and nutrients for trees and deliver them right to their roots. Why so helpful? Trees give something back! Through photosynthesis, plants take carbon from the atmosphere to make carbohydrates (i.e. sugar), the main building block of plants. Most trees make extra: they give sugar to mushrooms, and mushrooms give water and nutrients to trees — a sweet deal!

These tree-fungal relationships are called mycorrhizae, and they benefit the vast majority of trees and other plants. Often neither the tree nor the mushroom could survive without the other! In harsher environments (like, let’s face it, Canada’s), forests really depend on mushrooms to stay healthy.

And who depends on forests? We all do! For clean air, biodiversity, climate regulation, food, lumber, and medicines to name a few. One thing that’s very clear — we have a lot to thank mushrooms for!

22 Dec 2020

Merry Christmas! The Twelfth Dredge of Biomass


The Twelfth Dredge of Biomass
by Raymond K. Nakamura

For these taxing times, I tried a taxonomic take on an old favourite. Here is an annotated list of animal phyla, chosen for matching the number of syllables in the gifts mentioned in the song The Twelve Days of Christmas.

On the twelfth dredge of biomass, my true love gave to me —
This is supposing that you and your true love are fans of invertebrate zoology.

12 Annelida
Annelids are segmented worms, which include earthworms, as well as some marine ones called Christmas tree worms.

11 Platyhelminthes
Platyhelminthes are flatworms such as planarians, known for their ability to regenerate after being cut in half. 

10 Loricifera
Loricifera are relatively new in their discovery (1983). They would make fancy ornaments if they weren’t so tiny.

9 Cnidarians
Cnidarians include jellyfish, sea anemones, and coral, not to be confused with A Christmas Carol (a Charles Dickens story that can be read here on Project Gutenberg, a website sharing stories too old for copyright, or you can read about it on Wikipedia).

8 Nematoda
Nematoda are mostly tiny worms found in so many places that American nematodologist Nathan Cobb said in 1915,
 “If all the matter in the universe except the nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable ... we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes."


7 Arthropoda
Arthropoda include all the insects and all the crustaceans. I studied barnacles, which are arthropods, and so did Charles Darwin so they must be cool.

6 Priapulids
Priapulids are unsegmented marine worms also sometimes call “penis worms” for their approximate similarity in shape and sometimes size. Perhaps not appropriate for a true love to send.

5 Chordata
Chordata are the phylum to which all the gifts in the original 12 Days of Christmas song included, except for the pear tree. 

4 Chaetognaths
Chaetognaths are tiny creatures that would look like nice ornaments or awesome dragons if they were bigger.

3 Molluscs
Molluscs are a diverse group that include clams, mussels, oysters, escargot, calamari and other items that go well with garlic butter. The creature I drew is a Nautilus, Greek for sailor, and the name of Captain Nemo’s submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (a Jules Verne book you can read at Project Gutenberg).

2 Tardigrades
Tardigrades are tiny creatures also known as “water bears.” They are remarkably resilience creatures capable of living in many places. They were even spilled on the moon, although we don’t know if they survived that.

1 Echinodermata
Echinodermata include sea stars, sea urchins, sand dollars, sea cucumbers, brittle stars, and feather stars. I got interested in marine biology because of sea urchin gonads and ended up doing a doctorate on of the hydrodynamics sand dollars. Please don’t use them as tree ornaments no matter how perfect they seem for the task.

Whatever your inclination, I hope you have a maritime merry time this winter solstice, trying out these alternatives for all the verses and putting the “sea” back in Season’s Greetings.

18 Dec 2020

Tom Lehrer songs now in public domain!

by Paula Johanson

Part of learning about science is talking and thinking about science. And singing about it too, if you're someone who appreciates the humour of Tom Lehrer. Not every family will laugh at every one of his songs, but most families will find something funny in at least one of his songs about science or math. There's a Tom Lehrer song listing the elements from the Periodic Table of the elements, which is funnier to sing or hear than you'd think a list would be. It's all the two-syllable and three-syllable rhyming, which is humourous in English-language poetry for some traditional reason. Actor Daniel Radcliffe (who played Harry Potter in the films) has been known to sing this song at parties, and at least once on television.

Another song Tom Lehrer wrote had some cutting satire about Wehrner von Braun, a rocket scientist. Lehrer also wrote songs for the short television videos known as Schoolhouse Rock and for the television show The Electric Company, which were landmarks in the field of education using video/television.

As writer Cory Doctorow says on Twitter:

Tom Lehrer is one of our great nerdy, comedic songwriters, a Harvard-educated mathematician who produced a string of witty, unforgettable science- and math-themed comedic airs with nary a dud.

Now in his nineties, Lehrer remains both a political and scientific hero, sung the world round by geeks of every age. When my daughter was young, we taught her "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park."

Undergrads at UC Santa Cruz would sign up for his math class just to learn freshman algebra from the "Wehrner Von Braun" guy. Now, Lehrer has done something absolutely remarkable. 

In a note on his website, Lehrer has released the lyrics (and music, for those songs where he was the composer) into the public domain. He warns fans to download the songs before 12/31/2024, when he says he will delete his site. tomlehrersongs.com

Only the lyrics to 96 songs are in the release; Lehrer cautions the accompanying music will appear later "with further disclaimers." In his note, Lehrer urges us to make up our own tunes for these: "In particular, permission is hereby granted to anyone to set any of these lyrics to their own music and publish or perform their versions without fear of legal action." 


Why would anyone choose to give up the copyright to his songs? Well, for several reasons. Lehrer is in his nineties and has already retired from his academic career and from performing his songs. You can read about Lehrer's colourful life in a Wikipedia article about him which has many references for further reading. Some of his songs from the Electric Company are at this link and they're well worth learning.

If you want to learn more about copyright and creative commons licensing, there are many books and articles on the topic. Creative Commons has a website at this link. Copyright in Canada is managed at this link where there is lots of information you can read, including a Guide to Copyright you can read online at this link

12 Dec 2020

How Do Vaccines Work?

 by Yolanda Ridge

After a year of bad news stories, there’s finally some good news on the horizon when it comes to COVID-19: a vaccine!

So how do vaccines work? Here’s a step-by-step guide on how vaccines—also known as immunizations—prevent people from getting disease like the measles, the flu and (hopefully soon) COVID-19. For the simplicity, I’ll refer to the disease as “YUCK” and the germ that causes it as “Y”.

    Scientists modify Y so it is weak or even dead but still recognizable (a bit like a zombie).

    This zombified version of Y is given to a person, usually by injection or nasal spray.

    Once a person has been exposed to Y-modified they start to develop an immune response.

    This immune response can cause some people to develop a fever or maybe a bit of a runny nose but it will not cause someone to get YUCK because of the way Y has been modified (or zombified).

    The body essentially learns from this exposure to Y-modified through something called adaptive immunity.

    When an immunized person is next exposed to Y (this time through contact with someone who has YUCK) their immune system will immediately recognize the intruder and launch a full-scale assault… usually enough of an attack to stop Y from causing YUCK.

There’s more detail on vaccines and immunity in this excellent TED-Ed video. Because it was made in 2015, there’s no mention of COVID-19. But did you know that there are more than 150 coronavirus vaccines currently in development across the world? As I write this, people in the United Kingdom and Russia are receiving the first immunizations against COVID-19.

For more details on the different types of coronavirus vaccines and the process of getting them approved, check out this comprehensive article: Here’s the latest on COVID-19 vaccines, from National Geographic magazine.

According to a poll done by National Geographic magazine, 61% of Americans are likely to get an FDA-approved coronavirus vaccine once it’s available. What about you?

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: Male Zombie by Gordon Dylan Johnson from opengameart.org; Soldier by André Santana from pixabay.com

6 Dec 2020

Canadian Student Wins International Competition

 by Paula Johanson

A high school student from Fort MacMurray, Alberta, has just won an international science competition called Breakthrough Junior Challenge. Maryam Tsegaye has won a $500,000 award which includes a scholarship, a new science lab for her school, and a prize for her teacher. The challenge was to submit a video that explains a scientific principle.

Maryam explained quantum tunnelling, in a three-minute video.

If you haven't gotten around to learning new science during quarantine and winning an award with over 5,000 competitors, don't blame the pandemic -- just celebrate this student's victory!

Here's a link to an article about this student and her amazing video which is well worth seeing: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/fort-mcmurray-maryam-tsegaye-khan-1.5829840