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!