30 Jun 2016


June 30, 2016 -- Author and speaker Shar Levine, a founding member of Sci/Why, has been appointed a Member of the Order of Canada. The appointment, announced today, is for "her contributions to making science easier for children to understand through her hands-on workshops and for her work to involve parents, teachers and librarians in science education."

The Vancouver-based author, known as The Science Lady, said she is still numb with the news. "It's a win for all science writers," In particular, she said, she shares the honour with her long-time writing partner, Leslie Johnstone.

The Order of Canada recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.

24 Jun 2016

A Day in the Life of a Park Ranger

Note: Canadian parks generally have park wardens rather than park rangers, the term used in the United States. Apart from the difference in name, the job is much the same on both sides of the border. If you go to a park this summer, watch for the park rangers or park wardens - and remember the Oregon park rangers described here by author Margriet Ruurs. -CE

If you are interested in science - biology, ecology, being outdoors and leading a life of adventure - you might want to consider a career as a Park Ranger. Park Rangers, or wardens, manage wildlife, the environment, but also people who visit parks and interact with wild animals.

When Julie goes to work, she doesn’t know what will happen that day. Some days she drives her truck through the park to make sure everything is okay. Or she glides across the lake in her kayak to check the water depth and quality. Other days she has to cut down a tree that poses a danger to campers, writes a ticket to someone who broke the law or sits behind her desk to do paperwork.

Julie knows one thing for certain: no day on the job is ever the same!

Julie has been a Park Ranger for almost 20 years. When she was a kid, Julie loved to go camping with her family. It was back then that she decided that she would like nothing better than to work in the outdoors. “If you like camping and hiking and boating, there’s no better job!” she says.

Park Rangers learn about law enforcement and help to ensure that park visitors respect and learn about their natural environment. “Park Rangers are a kind of policeman in the outdoors,” Julie says. She helps to protect wildlife, such as bears or bobcats, that may live in the park and makes sure that both people and wildlife are safe.

Not everything about the job is exciting: Park Rangers may also have to paint picnic shelters and tables, clean outhouses and fire pits. Some Park Rangers work in Historic Parks that preserve an important historic place for the future.

Doug is one of Julie’s colleagues. He works at a historic heritage park. Here he shows a family how an old grist mill uses the power of water to grind flour in the olden days. Interpretation of nature or history, and teaching people how to interact with their environment can be a big part of the job of a Park Ranger.

At night, Julie often patrols campgrounds. She walks around with another ranger. They chat with the campers while making sure that they treat their environment with respect. Often Julie works long days and, by the time she crawls into bed, she is tired but happy to be a Park Ranger.

What she likes best about her job is that no two days are ever the same. “I love the variety!” Julie smiles. Who knows what tomorrow may bring!

Become a Junior Park Ranger

In American parks, if you are interested in protecting wildlife and learning more about natural areas, you can become a Junior Ranger. Many State and National Parks have Junior Ranger Programs. You can participate in special programs such as interpretive hikes and campfire programs. Often, you will get a special certificate or badge.

Most parks have special programs in the summer:

  • In Grand Canyon National Park, you get a special handbook for Junior Rangers that will help you to learn about the environment. 
  • Louisiana State Parks will give you a special punch card to get punched each time you visit a State Park’s event. After three punches, you will receive a Junior Ranger Handbook full of activities. Once you complete the activities, you receive a special Junior Ranger patch, a certificate and a personalized letter from the Director of State Parks in Louisiana.
  • In Yellowstone National Park, you can even go on a Junior Ranger snowshoe hike in the winter.

Be a Web Ranger or an Xplorer

If you can’t visit a Park in person, the U.S. National Park Service offers a “Web Rangers” site where you can learn about dinosaurs' diets, turtles in Florida and cave drawings made by Native Americans hundreds of years ago.

In Canada you can sign up for the Xplorers program before visiting a National Park.

All photos by Margriet Ruurs.

17 Jun 2016

The Joys of Researching Kids’ Science Books — Plus a Contest!

by Jan Thornhill

I’m in the midst of doing research for a new kids’ book ­— one of my favorite parts of the creation process. Not only do I get to fully immerse myself in my subject, but I also get to stumble across fabulous little off-topic tidbits that make my day. When I’m full hog into the process, these tidbits come to me one after another, making me ooh and ah with the thrill of discovery. What I live for — and the reason I tell kids that a day without learning something new is a day wasted.

I just got 2 advance copies of The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk!
Take yesterday, for instance, when I found a slew of fun things that were tangential to my topic. I’m going to list them so you can see what I mean. I’m also going to offer a prize of a signed book (sorry, not the Auk book — none to give away yet) to the first reader who can guess what I’m writing is about (unless I’ve already told you). Other than the “clues” that follow, your only hint is that it will be companion volume to The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk, which is coming out from Groundwood this October.

Staddle Stones

staddle stones
Staddle stones protect storage buildings from vermin. (Wikipedia)
“Staddle stones” were used in Great Britain to raise granaries and other small storage buildings above the ground to keep out vermin. Their widespread use blossomed with the introduction of a worldwide pest. (They look like mushrooms!)


nineteenth century manure crisis
In the late 1800s, horses dropped ridiculous amounts
of manure on the streets every day.
“Crossmen” were boys who were paid to remove manure from streets before automobiles replaced horses in cities. More specifically, they cleaned crossing paths so that women’s long skirts would not drag in piles of “horse apples.” (Google "manure crisis" for some entertaining reading!)

Cotton Domestication

ikat weaving
Ikat weaving (Wikipedia)
Cotton was independently domesticated in both the east and the west. Along with its domestication, the same tools for working it were independently invented: combs, spindles and simple looms. What I like best is that ikat weaving, (an extremely complicated process of dying bundles of yarn multiple hues or shades of colour and then lining them up while weaving to create intricate patterns in the final fabric), was also independently invented in Asia, Africa and central America. 

Word of the Day!

Inartificial: not characterized by art or skill (archaic)

Quote of the Day!

Mark Twain having a youthful bad hair day. (Wikipedia)

A quote attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

The "Father of Traffic Safety"

William Phelps Eno invented traffic signs
Traffic jams were common in cities long before cars came along.
At the beginning of the twentieth century William Phelps Eno — the "father of traffic safety" — came up with the stop sign, pedestrian crosswalk, traffic circle, one-way street, pedestrian traffic island, yield sign, and taxi stand. This was his adult response to having been stuck in a traffic jam many years before when he was a child, a traffic jam of about a dozen horse-drawn vehicles. He remembered thinking at the time that “all that was needed was a little order to keep the traffic moving.”

Protected Species in Elizabethan Cities

scavenger raven
The common raven is a scavenger. (Wikipedia)
Ravens and kites were protected species in Elizabethan cities. Both are scavengers of dead animals. I think it must have smelled more back then than we imagined!

10 Jun 2016

World Oceans Day

There are plenty of ways to celebrate science on World Oceans Day! Today before going to the beach, I went to Twitter and looked at some interesting projects
OceanNetworksCanada ‏@Ocean_Networks 
-that's a fascinating page on Twitter, with plenty of photos and links to interesting things happening in ocean science. Today they posted:
 "The audience oohs at a California during 's . Awesome!
Ocean Networks had this wonderful image of a sea cucumber!
 I also looked at the page for
"Connecting people to the ocean in an entertaining, engaging & educational way to build ocean awareness & the next generation of ocean stewards.

Fish Eye and Ocean Network used the hashtag #livedive, which leads to a page discussing live broadcasts during dives in the ocean. Fascinating!

Twitter is no substitute for walking along the seashore, or learning to scuba dive. But it's a great way to bring the outdoors and ocean into my home for an hour, and help me decide what to look for in the library and at the seashore.

3 Jun 2016

This Is Your Brain... This is Your Brain on Books

By L. E. Carmichael

Image via ambernwest/Flickr under CC
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of talking to librarians at the Atlantic Provinces Library Association conference about STEM books for kids, and how to find the great ones. Due to scheduling conflicts, I was only able to attend one other session, but it was a great one - all about the neurobiology of reading. In other words...

Your brain on books.

I really, really, wish I'd brought a notebook with me. So many details have already escaped me, but here's what I remember.

Learning to Read

Nicole Conrad of Saint Mary's University started the session. She talked about how kids learn to read in stages, and how the process of becoming a fluent reader causes physical changes in the structure of kid's brains. For one thing, stronger connections form between the occipital lobe, which processes visual info, and the language centres of the brain. That wasn't too surprising, but did you know there is an area of the brain that appears to exist exclusively for reading the written word? In fMRIs, that area only responds to words - no other visual information. How cool is THAT?

Conrad also said that fun activities like story time and playing with letter-shaped toys (like plastic fridge magnets) are enough to prepare kids for the image recognition used in reading. The "drill and kill" method of early reading training is not only totally unnecessary, but risks building resentment towards books. Keep reading fun, parents, and see what a difference it makes!

Reading and Bilingualism

Hélène Deacon was next, speaking on language acquisition for bilingual kids. Apparently kids (the lucky ducks) can learn a second language with no more effort than learning their first, because (unlike adults) they're really good at applying patterns from one language to patterns in a second language. Retention of languages is strongly affected by reading material, though. Kids whose first language is the dominant language of their social milieu benefit from reading in their second language, whereas kids whose first language is in the minority actually need reading enrichment in their primary language.

Deacon also shared my favourite fact of the session - books are an important part of language acquisition for kids, because the text complexity of a kid's book is equivalent to the oral complexity of expert witness testimony. Which means that kids who read are learning a much deeper and richer version of their languages than kids who only speak!

Reading When Deaf or Hearing Impaired

Bonita Squires shared some really cool science on how children with hearing impairments learn language. For example, did you know that letter sounds used in speech vary in both pitch and decibel? As a result, a hearing-impaired child may hear the same spoken word as a collection of very different sounds, depending on level of background noise and the pitch of a person's voice. This lack of consistency makes it really challenging for kids to learn new vocabulary aurally.

As deaf and hearing impaired kids learn to read, however, they discover that the same letter combinations always signify the same object or concept (assuming the words are properly spelled!). That knowledge dramatically improves their language skills, in any format. In other words, fostering a love of reading in kids with hearing impairments may be even more important than in kids with normal hearing.

And Something for the Adults...

Good news, grown ups! According to Gail Eskes of Dalhousie, reading is one of several activities that can slow general age-related cognitive decline, AND the onset of Alzheimer's disease, meaning avid readers will probably get more functional years out of their brains.

Go forth, my friends, and experience your brain on books. Need suggestions for a great title? Check out our list of Canadian science books for kids!