29 Jul 2016

They're Back!

by Helen Mason

Adult male piping plover on the beach at Presqu'ile Park.
This spring, after an absence of 100 years, piping plovers again nested on the sandy beaches of Lake Ontario in Presqu'ile Park near Brighton. It all began with two brothers born at Wasaga Beach last year. In April, the pair landed on a sandy stretch of Lake Ontario shore accompanied by a female born in a different nest at Wasaga Beach, also last year.

Piping plovers are a sand-coloured shorebird about the size of a sparrow. They share some similarities with Killdeer, their more-common relative, but are much smaller, paler in colour, and have orange-yellow legs.

The three plovers at Presqu'ile sported breeding plumage, which includes a black band around their neck, a black forehead patch, and a bright orange bill with a black tip.

The author (left) holds a log book in front of the roped-off area.
They must have spent the winter along the Atlantic or Gulf Coasts, where piping plovers breed on the salt flats. As northern summer approached, they may have watched other piping plovers head north to the prairies or along the Northern Atlantic Coast where the largest group of piping plovers lives. These three flew toward the Great Lakes.

They're part of a species that lost much of its breeding habitat when people began developing shorelines during the 1900s. By 1985, when piping plovers were listed as endangered, there were only 17 breeding pairs in the Great Lakes population, all in Michigan. Thanks to American protection, the numbers have now started to climb.

The Canadian Wildlife Service bands the 10-day-old chicks.
In 2007, piping plovers returned to Canada, first nesting at Sauble Beach on Georgian Bay. Soon, there were also nests at Wasaga Beach, where the Presqu'ile trio were born last year. When the three exhibited breeding behaviour, volunteers quickly roped off an area about half the size of a soccer field. Once the female chose a nesting site, they placed a large wire cage around it.

Both the cage wire and the fence allow the birds to enter and exit, but discourage people and predators from doing the same. Protected by teams of volunteer guardians, the female laid four eggs in late May. While she and the male incubated the eggs, the guardians kept beachcombers informed of what was going on, encouraged them to stay away from the protected area, shared what they knew about the species, and wrote down fresh observations.

An adult broods the young. How many legs do you see?
Once the eggs hatched starting June 28, volunteers were kept busy trying to keep track of three chicks. (The fourth egg had been damaged and didn't hatch.) This became more difficult when the young quickly started to run along the beach in search of their diet of insects, spider, larvae, and small crustaceans. It became even harder when the balls of down began to flap their wings and make short flights on July 19.

Guardian Leslie Abram keeps a photographic diary.
By the end of July, volunteers were anxiously watching interactions between gulls and the plover babies, hoping that the juveniles would ward off any attacks and live to fly back south and have their own young.

When this article was written on July 27, the three babies were still alive and being watched by their father and a rotating shift of about 50 volunteers. The mother headed south around the middle of July. Once the babies fully fledge, it is expected that the father will migrate as well. The babies aren't expected to leave until the middle or end of August.

And what about the other brother? Just after the chicks hatched, an unbanded female turned up on the Presqu'ile Beach. The unmated brother and this female disappeared soon afterwards, possibly to a southern beach where they can breed.

Helen Mason is an author who has written 32 books, most of them for young readers. She also reviews books for ResourceLinks.

22 Jul 2016

Forensic Science: Not As Seen On TV

by L. E. Carmichael

Why do TV shows have science consultants when they clearly don't listen to what their consultants tell them?
I have often wondered this. Generally while watching forensics procedurals.
I still haven't recovered from that episode of Bones where Dr. Jack Hodgins, in shocking defiance of sterile protocol, sorts through a fecal sample and then grabs a lamp with his dirty glove. GAH!
The one that really gets me, though, is "zoom and enhance," a ubiquitous trope so blatantly impossible that every seventh grader in every class I've ever visited knows it could never happen. As does anyone who's tapped on a cell phone pic and watched it pixilate.

(I have a friend who does special effects for these shows. He HATES "zoom and enhance," because he's the guy that has to stitch together the distance shot and the completely separate close shot to make it look like that actually works.)
Lighten up, Lindsey, you say - these shows are for entertainment, not education! Thing is though, a lot of viewers, particularly young ones, don't make that distinction. And the inaccuracies in television dramas create misconceptions about how forensic science works in the real world.
Case in point, the CSI Effect. Many lawyers and judges contest that watching TV crime shows has biased jurors' reactions to evidence presented in real trials. Jurors have acquitted people due to a lack of DNA evidence, despite the fact that not all crimes naturally involve the transfer of DNA. Regardless of the weight of other evidence, jurors expect forensic evidence in every trial. Police and CSIs know that, and have dramatically increased the volume of evidence they collect at crime scenes.... which seems like a good thing until you realize that real-life crime labs (unlike the ones on TV) have small staffs, limited budgets, and enormous backlogs of unprocessed evidence.
It is possible that the CSI Effect is not a real thing (scientific studies of the phenomenon are mixed). But if a fictional effect has created a real shift in evidence-gathering behaviour, that creates a real life problem, the ramifications of which are not yet fully known.
I blame Hollywood. But I still watch forensic shows, because they are some of the only shows on TV where scientists get to be stars.
Are you a fan of forensic shows? Which ones are your favourites? Have you given up on shows because they just can't get the science right?
Want me to talk to your seventh graders about forensic fact and fiction? I'm a member of the Nova Scotia Writers in the Schools Program and the Writers' Union of Canada, both of which offer subsidies to help bring writers into the classroom. Contact me for details.
You can also pre-order my new forensic book for grades 3-6, Discover Forensic Science.

8 Jul 2016

Do Kids Know That Word?

Choosing Age-appropriate Vocabulary in Science Communication

by Adrienne Montgomerie

Choosing words for kids' science materials can be tricky. Kids who are into science know a lot of vocabulary that isn’t in the curriculum. On the other hand, there’s no knowing whether any of the terminology taught in school is remembered. Heck, adults don’t remember most of the terms they were tested on in school.

But we have to start somewhere. And the easiest place to start is with the school curriculum.

Word lists such as the Children’s Writers Word Handbook, Dolche, and Modingler examine the number of times a child will be exposed to a given word at a given age. These systems survey literature that kids that age typically read. For my science vocabulary list, I took a much more restricted view, and examined only the elementary and high school curriculum expectations from the various ministries of education across Canada (as it became available and continues to change). The list records in which grade kids are exposed to various scientific terms. Of course, we can’t account for how often kids will see these terms, or for the impact of really keen or even disinterested science teaching, but the curriculum expectations provide a sort of baseline.

Why does this help? Because we can have a reasonable expectation that teens will recognize the term adaptation, because it is addressed in three grades by the time they are 15. And we can know to take extra care to explain the term heat sink because most teachers won’t cover that until Grade 10, when kids are about 14 years old, and they’ll learn about it only that one time. But even though climate is never presented as a key term, we might well expect people of all ages to have a sense of how the term is used, even if they can’t define it. Climate is used when discussing habitats in Grade 2 (ON), adaptations in Grade 3 (ON), and climate change in Grade 10 (ON), and we hear it in the news frequently.

Two other insights come out of this list:
  1. The spread of topics addressed across the country. Geology is a topic examined almost exclusively in British Columbia (in general science courses), for example. That should inform writers to always explain subduction zone and other seismological terms.
  2. The level of understanding the audience might have. To wit, a subject studied at Grade 11 will likely be understood at a more detailed and sophisticated level than a subject that was studied at Grade 3, even if we exclude the factor of how long there has been to forget.
Writers need to do some extrapolation from the lists that I have been compiling. Because I culled the stated vocabulary from the curriculum expectations, there are other, collateral terms, that writers could reasonably assume teachers are using. For example, characteristics must be talked about when discussing rocks in Grade 2 (BC) or classifications in Grade 6 (ON). The term chlorophyll is never listed in the expectations, but teachers might be assumed to talk about it when discussing chloroplasts in Grades 6, 8, and 11 (ON). Where it seemed reasonable, I included these terms and marked their grade level in brackets.

Field testing with your audience is a most useful test, and this vocabulary list will set you off on the right track.

How do you vet the vocabulary in your writing? Leave a comment below, join the discussion on Facebook, or Twitter @scieditor .

Adrienne Montgomerie is a science and education editor who helps publishers and businesses develop training resources. She believes we can make even the most complex ideas and procedures easy for learners to take in, maybe even to master.

1 Jul 2016

On Books - and "Real Books"

Writing for kids can be a monstrously thankless job. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me, “When are you going to write a ‘real’ book?” Grrrr.

Kids’ books are real books. The level of material they contain is often superior to material aimed at adults.  With good reason:  What we read when we’re young will stick with us for a lifetime. And if the ‘facts’ we learn are wrong….

Let’s pause for a moment and think about pearls. Do you, by any chance, think they form when a bit of grit gets into the oyster? So sorry. Not so.
I only learned the true story of the pearl while researching The Big Green Book of the Big Blue Sea (Kids Can Press). I fact-checked a ‘fact’ that I ‘knew’ was true: that oyster tidbit. I thought doing so was a formality; a waste of time even.

Yet when I looked for a good source to cite for the snippet, I couldn’t find one. I found lots of cut-and-paste text saying the same thing (grit, grit, grit). But no reliable data. I spent countless hours digging deeper. When I finally burrowed down to some solid research, I was shocked. Pearls, it turns out, are formed when a parasite, not a bit of grit, gets into the oyster’s gut.  

Because of ‘gems’ (read: booboos) like this, I always take extra care to get the facts in my books right. That’s easier said than done. In my latest science book, Monster Science (Kids Can Press), I planned to describe Gregor Mendel’s famous pea experiment. When I fact-checked the basics, I wound up with questions about the number of pea plants he grew. The figures repeated most often in reference material were 28- or 29,000. But where, exactly, did these figures come from? Could it be verified?
I spent a solid week looking for answers. There were none. It seems the numbers were fabricated and repeated again and again, just like the pearls-are-made-by-grit “fact.”
So I got to work. To compute a more reliable answer, I sourced Mendel’s own data and google-translated it from German. When I added up his own tallies for the pea plants he grew, it was significantly closer to 20,000 than 29,000. But that figure, too, was just a best guess: Mendel's data was incomplete. So no one really knows how many pea plants he grew! 
“10-20,000 plants” went into the manuscript.Unsurprisingly, the copy editor flagged it as an error, because she was comparing it to all the widely published – but wrong – numbers on the web! 
That could become a big problem. A book’s saleability can be hampered if reviewers think the research is sketchy. So my “10-20,000 plants” phrase couldn’t stand either.
So what to do? Long, detailed backs-and-forths transpired as we parsed the data and experimented with language. We finally came up with a phrase that delicately bridged the gap between what we knew was dead-accurate (“who knows?”)  and what sounded right  (29,000).

In the end, we spent over two weeks working on one ‘minor’ phrase. Why? Because we respect our readers.  And that’s why kids’ books are real books. They contain the best possible information available today, presented in clear, easy-to-understand language. Easy enough, that is, for even grown-ups to understand.