31 May 2011

Award for Children's Science News

If you have reported news on science for children in the last while you might want to consider submitting to the AAAS's Children's Science News award. (The Kavli award replaces a previously-awarded one, so you might want to check the past award to see the people and stories who've won.) Deadline August 1, 2011. Good luck!

30 May 2011

Making it Accessible

A short article on the links between success in the classroom and success on the page.

"...there are many things I've learned from being a science writer that transfer extremely well to teaching. Here are three of them: (1) a student is a complete person, and the class he or she is taking is but one part of his or her life; (2) if I am not excited about something
, I can not hope to excite a student about something; and (3) no matter how exciting something is, it needs to be accessible."

Logan Science Journalism Fellowship - With Video!

The Science Journalism A-Team

More Fun Than You Ever Had In School

Shar Levine

27 May 2011

Dragonflies: Vision equals speed

By Marie Powell

The thrum of dragonfly wings is the most welcome sign of summer for me. Dragonflies can fly as fast as a car drives on city streets. They can hover like helicopters in the air. They’re known as great fliers, and one of the advantages they have in the air comes from their sight.

Dragonflies have two large compound eyes, and three ocelli or simple eyes. Each compound eye has about 30,000 tiny, six-sided lenses or facets, to help them see more clearly. With thousands of different species, there are likely variations in the way they see. Scientists speculate that most dragonflies can see colour better than humans. Dragonflies also see polarized light and ultraviolet light.

Dragonfly eyesight becomes a big advantage to them in flight. They can see in front and behind them with their compound eyes. They see what’s around them quickly and accurately. Another big advantage is the way they are able to see movement. As hunters of other speedy insects, that’s what they need to survive.

I love finding out about dragonflies. That's one reason why I wrote a book about them: Dragonflies are Amazing! (Scholastic Canada, 2007). I still enjoy finding out about dragonflies and dragonfly eyes. Here are a few online links that I like:

Australian National University: Australians seem to be the experts on dragonflies, and they are looking at its eye in a study of new flying vehicles for people!

Living the Scientific Life blog: “30,000 Facets Give Dragonflies a Different Perspective: The Big Compound Eye in the Sky.” This blog article has great pictures and interviews with scientists who are also dragonfly experts. (But please don’t follow the advice to catch dragonflies in nets: it could damage their wings. Try standing still to let them land on you instead. That way you can examine each other!)

Dragonflies of Manitoba: This website has amazing animated pictures, as well as video clips. (Note: Plug-ins are required for videos, but information is also available without videos.)

There are lots of online links to explore for more info on insects. Happy hunting!

Marie Powell is the author of Dragonflies are Amazing! (Scholastic Canada, Grade Two Guided Reading, 2007).

24 May 2011

Inspiration in the Oatmeal Jar

After, "How old are you?" and "How much money do you make?" students I meet during school visits often ask "Where do you get your inspiration?"

That's pretty easy for a science writer. Everywhere. Ideas are all around us. The trick is spinning these ideas into a viable project and always being open to to seeing the story in whatever you are up to. There are a lot of times I miss out on a good idea and there are many times I've seen a published book or article and said, while slapping forehead, "Ah, I wish I'd thought of that." Like the time I found the coolest coprolite in New Zealand. (I mean, honestly, don't you think fossilized poo is exciting? Well, I do and that's probably why I'm a science writer.) Much as I was fascinated, for some reason I didn't think of spinning it into an article or even a book. But Jacob Berkowitz did and he wrote the the coolest book about the stuff: Jurassic Poop: What Dinosaurs (and others) Left Behind. I'm not envious at all. Nope. Not me.

Writing about poop would be right up my alley. I tend to veer towards the living-things-people-love-to-hate school of writing. Bats, snakes, spiders, shipwrecks, and slugs have all been subjects, but I don't stop at living things. Mud, slime, even death fascinate me. General rule? The gooier, slimier, muckier and grosser the better.

Most of the time, writing about these topics is just plain fun. But sometimes it pays off too. When people ask me "What is your best selling book?" they are often surprised at the answer: Mealworms: Raise them, watch them, see them change.

Yup, when it first came out in 1998, this book flew off the shelves. (Well, as much as my books ever fly anywhere.) The trick to the success of this book was, to use a sciency term, finding its niche. And I found a fairly large one: teachers across North America use mealworms to teach students about metamorphosis. These creatures, the larva of the darkling beetle, metamorphose fairly quickly and don't fly as beetles. So they're perfect for the classroom, where the last thing teachers want are escaped science projects, especially ones as potentially pesty as mealworms.

So, all of this is to say hello and to make my official entry onto this blog. Thanks for stopping by! If you care to know more about me, you can find more than enough here.

22 May 2011

Logan Science Journalism Fellowship - With Pictures!

A beautiful misty morning.

Adult female sea urchin - yellow at the bottom of the beaker are the eggs. To sex the urchins, hold the urchin in your hand, spiny side up and look for large gonopores on the top.  Draw a syringe with a needle and inject KCl into each of the 5 corners of the pentagon-shaped mouth. Shake the urchin and turn upside down into a sea-water filled beaker.
Eggs from the male are collected by using a syringe to suck up white, gooey material from the top of the creature.
Way cool microscope that takes time-lapse photography of fertilization of sea urchin eggs.

For more info, check out this cool blog.

Shar Levine

20 May 2011

Logan Science Journalism Fellowship

An Introduction

Although I live on the west coast of British Columbia, I find myself writing this from the east coast of the United States.  Fog horns echo into the night as a thick blanket settles on the waters surrounding Woods Hole. For the next 10 days I will be attending the Logan Science Journalism Fellowship offered by the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) located in Woods Hole, Mass. The MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in North America. To quote the introductory video, "MBL is to marine biologists what Paris is to artists." More than 50 Nobel Laureates have studied, researched or have taught at this facility.  There's more to MBL than the obvious interest in things in the water.  The facility conducts research on ecosystems, and cell biology as it relates to humans. They also use sea creatures to conduct studies on biomedical, biological and ecological issues.  If that weren't ambitious enough, they are the brains behind the Encyclopedia of Life project.  The aim of this web site is to create a page for all 1.8 million species that live on our planet.  Ooops make that 1,800,002 million as more species are discovered each day.

MBL has selected 15 journalists from around the world who will be working with scientists on two programs. One group has headed out into the marshlands on Cape Cod to study the effects of pollution on the ecology and the environment. I was delighted not to join them as they headed off into the wilderness, sleeping bags and packed dinners in hand.  Instead I had a leisurely stroll down the campus to the lab where I was allowed to play with really cool microscopes. This week I will be studying sea urchins and seeing how the cells of these simple creatures related to humans. 

The course is a boot camp in basic biomedical research.  It would be an understatement to say that the material is heavy. We are looking at genomes and molecular genetics as they relate to humans and diseases.  So why sea urchins?  To quote from the course material, "a model organism is a species that has been widely studied usually because it is easy to maintain and breed in a laboratory setting and has particular experimental advantages." This means that the creature is cheap, simple to use, and  no one feels too bad about poking sea urchins with needles. So bright and early tomorrow I am off to fertilize sea urchin eggs and watch them grow. At each stage we will be taking photomicrographs (pictures taken of the images seen in a microscope). I will be using special stains that show different parts of the cells, which is a thrill because normally I only get to use ink or food coloring.  It's nice to play in an adult lab.

Will post photos as the day progresses.

Shar Levine

16 May 2011

Another Introduction - Paula Johanson

Some of the writers on this website are career scientists, but not me. The closest I’ve come to being an official scientist is being a volunteer Naturalist for Elk/Beaver Lake Nature Centre. I haven’t always been a science writer, but I’ve always been interested in science and writing.

Since my first summer job as a summer maintenance worker in a provincial park, I’ve worked at a lot of jobs – one day I’ll post a note here telling about how some of the jobs led to some of my books! I got a degree in Writing, and a teaching certificate, before my children were born. I’ve worked as a freelance writer and editor, and taught writing workshops. Most of the books I’ve written are for educational publishers who supply school libraries.

I enjoy writing introductory books on science. Four of my books for Rosen Publishing were from their series Understanding the Elements of the Periodic Table – they were Platinum, Cobalt, Lithium and Copper. The fun part in these books of facts was finding little anecdotes or things of interest about each element. For instance, one of the first scientists to study cobalt in the 16th century was accused of witchcraft, because miners and villagers didn’t understand his experiments. The methods of science – careful observation, record-keeping, studying materials or methods that have no ordinary purpose – were not familiar to most people then. One of the reasons that the Canadian and American school systems have science lessons is to help our citizens understand that science is a way to learn about the world and everything in it. “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know,” wrote philosopher Anatole France. “It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.”

It was interesting to write four books on sustainability, too. There are so many technical facts to learn for books on Making Good Choices About Nonrenewable Resources or Biofuels: Sustainable Energy in the 21st Century. As well, the social sciences are an important part of explaining what makes a business or an industry sustainable.

The books I’ve written on health show the practical application of science to health care. Doctors and researchers help us understand how to maintain health and treat disease. Muscular Dystrophy was written for a series on Genetic and Developmental Disease. Frequently Asked Questions About Testicular Cancer was the first book on the topic that was meant for ordinary readers, not medical students. Of all my books, I’m most proud of HIV and AIDS: Coping in a Changing World. It’s written at a grade 4 reading level, even the section telling how protease inhibitors affect a person’s immune system! For another health book, I was teamed up with a psychologist and we wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Conquering Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior. We had to write in plain language about how brains are affected by chemistry and behavior.

My books on the food sciences include Fake Foods: Fried, Fast, and Processed from the series The Incredibly Disgusting Story, and Processed Food from the series What’s in Your Food? Recipe for Disaster. I’m working now on a book for the series The Truth About The Food Supply. These short books are introductions to the same topics explored in challenging books by Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Wendell Barry and others. Like all my science books, these food books have reference sections loaded with information on organizations to contact, websites to surf, age-appropriate books for young people, and a bibliography.

The other books I’ve written aren’t about science. But there are science facts in the books I wrote for the Poetry Rocks! series from Enslow Publishers. My novel, Tower in the Crooked Wood, has a tree-pruner for a heroine. On her quest she uses what she knows about trees when solving a mystery. It looks like science is everywhere in my writing.

13 May 2011

Fontenelle, the "first" popularizer of science

“First” is in quotes because who knows who really was the first person to translate a jargon-laced scientific theory into lay language? And I’m likely only talking Western Science, so I’m biased. My vote, however, goes to the French writer Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle. He may not have written for kids, but with his wit, sense of fun, and vivid imagination, he could have.

Fontenelle’s book Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686) was to the 17th century, what Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was to the 20th century — every one who could read had a copy. (Whether they read it — who has actually read A Brief History of Time cover-to-cover? — is another story.)

A slight 100 pages, Conversations takes place over six nights. A philosopher (meaning scientist) is staying at a chateau in the country, where he meets a Marquise. She is young, beautiful, and intelligent. Each night they meet to talk about the natural world. The philosopher opens the world to her eyes, and being curious and open-minded, she absorbs the most daring ideas of science to date. Every science journalist/writer/kids' science writer should read it. In his introduction, Fontenelle was upfront that the book was meant to entertain as well as educate. And he knew his audience. One of his main characters was a woman. Wait. An intelligent woman. Fontenelle understood that the key to his success as a writer was to engage his readers, and women were the ones who organized the salons and invited the intelligentsia, like him, to converse with the educated class about science. Fontenelle seized on that bit of market information — how many other writers were placing smart, beautiful women in mainstream roles?

Fontenelle (1657-1757) lived and wrote during the French enlightenment. Read “Conversations” and you’ll discover a writer far ahead of even that enlightened time period. When would humans build a flying machine to visit the Moon? Are there aliens? Exoplanets? Does Earth go around the Sun? Without his writings, the general reading public would not have had the exposure they did to progressive scientific ideas of the time, i.e. a heliocentric view of the solar system. Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica was published a year after Fontenelle’s book, and guaranteed (though it was seminal) hardly anyone could read and understand the book. It was Fontenelle who popularized the idea that other worlds could exist, inhabited by beings we could hardly imagine.

Today, Fontenelle would be clarifying the ideas about the multiverse, wormholes, the Higgs-Boson particle, and lamenting the demise of SETI. No, wait, he would be writing about more than physics — evolutionary biology and anthropology would definitely be on his radar.

At the time that Fontenelle wrote, educated Europeans had learned a lot about non-Europeans and comparative religion was becoming an active field of scholarship. Travellers, missionaries and colonial administrators were coming back to Europe to write about their adventures, the people, the cultures, and the religions they encountered. In 1661, for example, the Dutch scholar Gadetrius Carolinas, produced a 50-volume work on the many “heathen” religions. Fontenelle avidly read these accounts. In fact, at the same time as Fontenelle’s Of the Origin of Fables (another great read — short and to the point) was published in 1724 (although it was probably written in the 1690s), Francois Joseph Lafitau, a Jesuit Missionary, published The Customs of the American Savage Compared to the Custom of Earliest Times: The Canadian Iroquois and Myths of the Ancient Mediterranean Region.

To Fontenelle, humans may be a diverse lot, in varying stages of civilization, and their physicality partly based on environmental pressures, but the mentality of early humans was not fundamentally or qualitatively different from modern humans: “Clothes may change, but that does not mean that the shape of bodies does. Manners or the lack of them, science or ignorance, more or less of a certain naiveté, these are only man’s externals, and they all change, but the heart never changes, and all of man is contained in the heart.” — Jude Isabella, science writer, Fontenelle Fan

11 May 2011

Science Festivities in the City

By Pippa Wysong (May 2011) – On a sunny Saturday in early May an amazing thing happened. Scientists across Canada came out into the open with experiments, demonstrations and expertise in hand. They were there for anyone who was curious about they do. It was an event called Science Rendezvous.
In what began as a local science festival in Toronto in 2008, Science Rendezvous has morphed into an event which now takes place one day a year in cities across Canada. Laboratories on university and college campuses, and even some private labs, open their doors to the public.
This year, I went to the University of Toronto campus and started at the astronomy and physics section of the event. I chatted with an astronomy graduate student who told me her area of study was celestial motion – how planets and stars move around in space, and how they affect each other. She studies what happens in solar systems where there are two, three or more stars. It turns out that systems with multiple stars are very common. Our solar system, with its one star is not the most common model.
I also met a grad student who studies colliding black holes – an even more intriguing area since these are objects that can't be directly observed. I also met big-name astronomy professor John Percy who studies variable stars, and who was more than happy to answer any sort of astronomy question you could throw at him.
Down the street from the astronomers was a man in front of the chemistry building playing a strange instrument he called a hydraulophone. The man was none other than the clever and eccentric professor Steven Mann from the department of electrical and computer engineering. The instrument consisted of a series of containers filled with water. There were holes at the top of each container where some of the water burbled out. To play this instrument he slapped the tops of the containers – which created vibrations in the water and a tone.
The idea came when he thought about how musical instruments work, he said. There are wind instruments (which use air or gas), and instruments which rely on vibrations through solid materials (think drums, or even string instruments). He figured something could be done using vibrations through water. Of course, my question is – are fire instruments next on the list?
The physics department opened up its doors to it holographic lab. Here there were displays showing off some really impressive holographic images using at least four different hologram technologies. Very cool.
Then there was the grad student who studies flat worms – microscopic creatures that look something like leeches. He informed us that flatworms can not only regenerate body parts that are broken off, but the broken off bits grow into a new flat worm.
There was a second event in Toronto that day that was listed as part of Science Rendezvous– the Mini Maker Faire at the Evergreen Brickworks. A Maker Faire is where science, technology and art meet.
At this event were over 100 booths of 'makers' – mostly hobbyists who build strange and intriguing things in their basements and garages, or in co-operative studio spaces. There we saw mechanical Steampunk kinetic sculptures by Russell Zeid, hand carved wooden telescopes, and people willing to show you how to make your own small remote controlled toys.
There was also the display of apparently blank canvasses where the images on them could only be seen on pictures you took of them. How did that work? The canvasses had LED lights behind them which emitted infrared light – a frequency of light that our eyes can't see, but is picked up by most digital cameras.
So, keep eye on the calendar for early May next year. Science Rendezvous will be back, and is an event for people of all ages. Science might sound like something for geeks, but once you're at this event, it’s amazingly fun.

10 May 2011

From reading to writing astronomy

Before I was a science author, I was a writer. Before I was a writer, I was a reader!
As a child, I read so many books I wanted to create my own! I still have the first books I made at nine years old. Looking back, it’s funny to realize these creations were mostly non-fiction. One included everything you need to know about taking care of a budgie. While my illustrations clearly indicated I wouldn’t be one of those creators who “does it all” it seemed clear I would be creating something!
There are many paths to becoming an author. I believe many of my early writing experiences served as useful practice. The multitude of pen pals who responded to my letters made me rise to the challenge to write on demand, even when not much was happening.
When I was 13, the Edmonton Journal had a kids’ page. I signed up and received a badge proclaiming my cub reporter membership. After a writing contest was announced, I wrote and sent in a poem. While I didn’t win, something good still happened. The editor of the local paper wrote a letter to me.  
“Dear Joan, I see you live in Sherwood Park and you’re a writer. Would you like to write for the Sherwood Park News?”
One week I was delivering the paper, the next I was writing for it! A weekly question and answer bird column became my first paying gig. I never knew if the editor knew my real age. 
And, excuse me for admitting this, but I didn’t just pass notes in school. I wrote rhyming ditties and sometimes entire chapters about the things I wanted to say. I still have copies of Ode to a Paramecium and Ode to a Ski Trip.
My interest in science began with books and enjoying the outdoors. I remember buying a bird book at the toy store and also owning the How and Why Book of Astronomy. My interest in science led me to take a two year technical program in biological sciences, with a focus on ecology. My plan was to work outdoors, perhaps as a technician for a research team.
Jobs were scarce when I graduated. People were not generally excited about the environment the way they are today. My first related job was as an Alberta Provincial Park naturalist. It was a wonderful combination of things I love. I could work outdoors and take people on hikes. I could read about plants and animals on the job. I could write scripts for interpretive plays and hikes! If only summer never had to end for the job was seasonal.
Eventually I talked my way a small town radio station job. Here I learned to write news, commercials, and contests. After my children were born, I worked on a young adult novel and began freelance writing for newspapers and magazines. I produced stories for CBC Radio in Edmonton and eventually saw Whitecap Books publish my first title in the Dot to Dot in the Sky series.
These four books explain how to find celestial objects in the night sky. They also include stories ancient cultures used to explain the stars, planets, Moon, and other night sky phenomena.
Now I write full time. When I'm not writing, I seem to be talking about writing, delivering workshops, or showing kids what they can look for in the night sky. And the great thing is, it all started with a love for the outdoors and books!

6 May 2011

Asking questions for fun and profit. Especially fun!

Since I’m the one getting blamed for this blog in the Welcome message, I should probably introduce myself.

Hi, everyone! I'm Claire, and it’s great to be here.

I’m the blogger in the upper left-hand corner. I live in the Yukon, the most northwestern bit of Canada, and – in a way – it’s living in the Yukon that got me into writing about science for kids.

I’ve been writing about science for a long time. It’s part of my semi-nefarious plot to get people to pay me for doing what I want to do anyway. Basically, I’m curious. I was the kid whose nose was always buried in a book. If books didn’t have all the answers, I asked questions – of my parents, my teachers, my aunts and uncles and cousins, even the world-famous physicist who lived next door.

When I lived in Saskatoon, I convinced CBC Radio that its morning show urgently needed a weekly science feature. The producer believed me, and the series lasted for two and a half years, or about 125 glorious weeks of getting paid to ask questions about everything from bugs to relativity.

Then, in 1984, I moved to the Yukon and found a whole new set of questions. You see, the Yukon is a peculiar place. Twenty thousand years ago, when most of Canada was buried under kilometres of ice, much of the Yukon was ice-free and full of life. There were woolly mammoths, camels, muskoxen and caribou, dire wolves, giant short-faced bears, scimitar cats, and weird giant ground sloths.

There’s a ground sloth skeleton in a museum just up the hill, and it fascinates me. (Check out the photo. That's my cool running shoe next to the giant sloth claw!)

I wanted to know more. How could something so huge be related to the tree sloths from modern-day rainforests? What was it doing so far north? So I started reading and asking questions. And I found more animals that fascinated me: dragonflies as big as hawks, huge crocs from what’s now a desert, bear-sized beaver, and rabbit-sized camels.

All those questions led to my first science book for kids, Super Crocs & Monster Wings: Modern Animals’ Ancient Past. Because, who appreciates weird, giant animals more than kids? (And me, of course.)

More books have happened since then, but I’ll talk about about them, and plenty of other stuff, in later blogs.


Join me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CEamer

3 May 2011

A Light in the Wilderness

Some people are born knowing their purpose; some find it as they go.  Some know which path they mean to take from the outset, but set out at night, stumble about in the bushes, drop their flashlights, stub their toes on rocks, greet the dawn with joy and relief, and discover, much to their astonishment, that they've ended up exactly where they meant to get in the first place.

I'm the third kind.

I was reading at age two and started making up my own stories shortly after (the one about how the dog unwrapped and ate my brother's chocolate bar was true, I swear).  I wrote and illustrated my first picture book when I was six.  At ten, I started a novel, and spent most of my middle school years carrying a notebook from class to class, scribbling every chance I got.  I knew, the way some people know their age or eye colour, that I was meant to write.

Which was all very well until twelfth grade, when people (and by people I mean my eminently practical father) started asking me how I was planning on actually making a living.  His exact words, I believe: "Dreams are great, kid, but you'd better have a backup plan."


I didn't have the first idea where to get one of those!  After all, I'd only ever wanted to be a writer.  Panic ensued until, not surprisingly, I found the answer in a book - Joseph Wambaugh's The Blooding, the true story of the first murders solved by DNA fingerprinting.  I was completely fascinated, by the science of genetics in general and this forensic application in particular.  Which is how I found myself, four years later, with a BSc in Honors Genetics.

This is the part where it starts to go sideways. 

There are jobs available to BSc's, after all, and plenty of the type that qualify as backup plans.  I even applied for one - heading up Alberta's newly created Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab.  When I came in second to a guy with a PhD, graduate school seemed like a perfectly reasonable option.

I knew within six months that I'd seriously miscalculated.  Some people love research, thriving on the problems and challenges and frustrations (oh vast universe of cursing, crying, hair-pulling frustrations).  For me it was a interminable, Sisyphean task of unrelenting misery - the kind of misery, I realize now,  due to the denial of self resulting from a stubborn refusal to realize I was stumbling around in the wrong forest, never mind on the wrong path.  I made it through on sheer willpower, and the day I received my degree (or passport to freedom, as the case may be) was one of the happiest of my life.

American Museum of Natural History
I'm still not sure how I managed to pull a Governor General's Medal out of the deal, but I took it and ran.  And discovered, to my total astonishment, that I don't hate science after all - I love science.  I just hated doing it.

So here I am, a budding children's science writer with a PhD in wildlife population genetics.  A PhD which has not only taught me how to ferret out obscure facts, but how to share them with others - how to find the story behind the data.  See Dad, I told you decade's worth of post secondary education wouldn't go to waste!

Lindsey Carmichael
lindsey (at) foxtalk (dot) ca