Free Trip to a Museum or Starbucks..?

Friends, family, and readers! I’m interested in getting a bit of background information on the folks who regularly or occasionally read my blog. (Or heck, even if you’ve never read it, but you were intrigued by my dazzling flowery banner at the top.) My goal is to learn a little bit more about all of you so that I can better meet your interests and reading needs.

Survey is here.

Once you have taken the survey, either message my Facebook blog page or comment “Done!” on the Facebook share. On Wednesday, July 13th, I’ll randomly pick one person to win their choice of either $10 to Starbucks or two tickets to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. (And to ensure it’s random, I’ll use a spreadsheet.)

Thanks so much! Keep exploring!

Summer Science at Home

Summer is almost here! If the school year was a sundae, we’d be scooping up the last of the melted ice cream and swirls of chocolate fudge from the bottom of a soda shop glass. What does summer mean for kids and families? Technically, it probably means that the schedule is already jam-packed with soccer camp, band camp, family vacation, gymnastics class, volunteering, internships, and mowing the yard.

Oh, but summer also can mean something very exciting…something that better get you hopping on the edge of your seat and reaching for a lab coat…summer can also mean…more time for science!! In the down time from school, you and your family are the lucky winners of some opportunities to keep those critical thinking skills sharp and your excitement for knowledge bouncing! Here are a few ways to keep science going at home over the summer. *Note, this post is intended for parents, but if you’re under 18 and you found it, great! Just be sure to check with a parent or guardian before trying any experiments at home.*

Make Little Bits of Your Summer Inquiry-Based

One way to keep learning minds fresh is to engage in the challenges and quests of inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based learning means learning through experiences and probing for answers, rather than being given all the facts to memorize up front. It’s a hands-on approach. In a classroom, that could mean being presented with a case study or a scenario, and the students would need to reason through the case to eventually learn and understand the information after clarification from a teacher. The approach greatly helps with critical-thinking skills in addition to observational skills.

At home this summer, one of the things you can do as a family is try to plan for a few mini inquiry adventures. The best part of an inquiry-based or experiential learning approach is that the parents don’t need all the answers before get started. Start by picking a topic, maybe do a bit of background to give yourself a boost, and then start developing some questions that can be answered by observation or even experimentation.

For example, let’s say you want to take biology by the cornibus and visit a nature park, but you’re not quite a field naturalist yet. That is A-Ok. With an inquiry-based approach, you can arm yourselves with guide books and a field journal, and start asking questions. Try focusing on a particular aspect of the environment to keep yourself from being overwhelmed. A few question examples that don’t particularly require background knowledge but are fun to answer are below:

  • Are the kinds of plants near the stream the same or different as the kinds of plants near the meadow? Why might that be?
  • Can we hear more bird calls at the forest edge or in the forest interior? Why might that be?
  • Is there a fair bit of the scat on the ground (oh the fun with poop) or no? What kind of mammals might have been passing through?
  • What size pebbles are at the bottom of the creek? Are they big pebbles or small pebbles? Why might pebble size matter?

A key part of inquiry is to work through your questions; in many ways, that process is more important than the answer. As you reason through your question and observations, take some field notes, make sketches– just write as much down as you can. You’ll probably be impressed with what you take note of, and you will definitely be impressed with what your kids observe! And as a bonus, most parks have great naturalists you can pass on some of your questions to if you get super stumped with your guide books 🙂  It’s a great way to get more out of a hike.

Science at Home

Maybe exploring completely new territory isn’t your cup of iced coffee yet, and you want to start with a bit more guidance. Not a problem! If you’re up for a few good home-cooked adventures, here are some great resources below for easy experiments. There are instructions and explanations for the suggested projects, but I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the concepts behind the experiments, either with a text book or a trusted source. Also, most of the projects can be done with common household items or something you can easily pick up at Target. (But beware—I ALWAYS tell myself I only need facewash and socks when I go in that store…but a new mop, two sweaters, light bulbs, throw pillows, and a box of granola bars later…)

Scientific American—Education, Bring Science  I love some of the projects on this page. Many of them seem geared for roughly fourth grade and up, but honestly, younger kids would probably like many of the activities too (they just may not understand all of the explanations.) What I really like about the directions page for each project are the question prompts. A key part of scientific inquiry is being able to reason through your methods and results, and the prompts will help work on those critical thinking skills.

University of Wisconsin—Science is Fun, Home Experiments  This page has a number of different experiments that you can conduct at home, plus the explanations for how and why the experiments work. Some of the activities are a bit advanced or involved, depending on what kind of resources you have around the house; but overall the page has quite a few great ideas!

Scholastic—Videos of Experiments  Maybe today just feels like a quiet afternoon. Maybe you have dinner guests coming and the kitchen needs to stay clean. No matter! Here is a list of some great videos of experiments that you can watch, and perhaps try yourself later. As a side note, some of these videos give great explanations of what’s happening, but some are going to require a little bit of research—hey that could be a good idea though!

Lab Safety

Even if you’re working with baking soda and vinegar, it is always important to keep safety in mind. The stereotype of a scientist in lab coat and goggles came about for a reason, and that reason is to protect yourself! Even at home. Before you get started on a project, what sort of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) will you need? For most of the projects here, old clothes and some sort of glasses or goggles are probably all that you really need, maybe even gloves if you want to be safe (and let’s be real here, you’ll look cooler anyway.) Amazon has some cost-effective starter gear, if you’re interested. And after every experiment, be sure to wash your hands!

Steel City Science

Pittsburgh skyline

I moved to Pittsburgh almost seven years ago when I first started graduate school. On the one hand, the first thought that pops into my head is “Holy crikeyness, that long ago? I’m old.” But quickly behind that thought is how much I’ve come to love this city. From my beloved hockey team to the view driving out of the Ft. Pitt Tunnels to the phenomenon of pierogies, Pittsburgh has become my second home. Beyond the sentimentality, though, is the science. Pittsburgh, aka, the Steel City, has a unique collection institutions and universities that produce some fantastic research ranging from robotics to wildlife biology, and everything in between.

Since I haven’t posted anything on here in precisely an age, I thought a good way to jump back in the writing boat would be to showcase some of the folks in Pittsburgh who work on really fantastic projects. And I’ll be honest, this post really should have been titled something like “Steel City Bio” since I’m a bit biased to living things, but I have an affinity for alliteration. And maybe I’ll have a sequel in the future! So without further hubbub…

 ~The Researchers~

Dr. Jonathan Pruitt—Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh

We regular Joes and Josephines may shudder when we see single spider, let alone a group of spiders all hanging out together; but the cooperation between these eight-legged, erm, friends is precisely what gets Dr. Pruitt’s inquisitive wheels rolling. A behavioral ecologist in Pitt’s biology department, Dr. Pruitt focuses on intraspecific interactions between social spiders. In other words, he studies spiders that live and work together in giant colonies with giant webs (calming breaths and a happy song.) In addition, it turns out that within these colonies, individual spiders have personalities and “careers” based on their personality. The combination of different personalities within a colony of spiders has a direct impact on the persistence/survival of the entire colony! Now how’s that for spidey-senses?



Dr. Steve Latta—Director of Conservation and Field Research at the National Aviary

As the lead scientist at one of only a handful of institutions on the continent to be completely focused on birds, it makes complete sense that Dr. Latta is an ornithologist extraordinaire. His research has ranged from the biology of various species of songbirds and raptors to avian ecology and conservation as a whole. The National Aviary currently is overseeing a variety of projects including migratory bird habitat restoration, urban peregrine falcon monitoring, Louisiana waterthrush, and some citizen science efforts. You can learn more about what Dr. Latta and the Aviary are up to here!

As a few fun facts, Dr. Latta also keeps chickens and sold me a tank for the California kingsnake I kept in graduate school 🙂



Dr. Jose Padial—Herpetology Curator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History

A little like Dr. Pruitt’s spiders, Dr. Padial’s herps (reptiles and amphibians) might cause a shudder in some folks, but with a dash of an open mind, anyone can quickly see how cool his work is. Part evolutionary biologist, part conservationist, Dr. Padial’s has been a part of projects that span phylogenetics, speciation, biogeography, taxonomy, and any synthesis of these disciplines. While in Pennsylvania, he works with local species, but he also regularly travels to South America for a focus on frogs of the Amazon.



Dr. Joe Gaspard—Director of Science and Conservation at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium

Many folks aren’t aware of how large a role zoos can play in wildlife research, but I can help with that! Dr. Gaspard came on board at the Pittsburgh Zoo in 2014, but before that, he had built up quite the publications list in the world of marine biology. Working on topics ranging from manatee vision, hearing and touch to loggerhead sea turtle biology, Dr. Gaspard has a brought a broad background with him to Pittsburgh—especially useful with the addition of the elephant seal Coolio currently in rehabilitation in the aquarium.



Dr. Brady Porter— Associate Professor at Duquesne University

Think I was going to leave this one out? Dr. Porter’s evolutionary biology background traditionally focused on conservation and the population genetics of freshwater fishes, but in recent years, work from his lab has included studies on toads, Louisiana waterthrush, golden eagles, and bald eagles. In addition to his own research, Dr. Porter has completed fish surveys with the Fish and Boat Commission, is on the board of directors for a local chapter of the Audubon Society, regularly organizes or takes part in such citizen science efforts as BioBlitzes and the Christmas Bird Count, and he used to have a grad student that looked like this.



Bonus Round!

The next two folks aren’t directly in Pittsburgh, but they are close by. Both affiliated with West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV, they’re just a quick drive away from the ‘Burgh, and their respective projects have an impact well outside Western Pennsylvania. So I think you all should learn about them.

Dr. Tricia Miller—Research Biologist

Part of a team with my former academic co-advisor (Dr. Todd Katzner of the USGS), Dr. Miller specializes in movement ecology of birds of prey—golden eagles in particular. Her work has revealed the migratory routes for golden eagles in the eastern half of North America, and she has done a great deal of research on home ranges, habitat use, and flight biology of goldens. In addition, she has been a driving force behind research that aims to minimize the potentially negative effects of wind power on birds of prey while still maximizing wind use. Dr. Miller uses cutting-edge cellular telemetry technology for her work, and I would wager she has come in contact with more golden eagles than anyone else in the world. I should also mention that’s a part of the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group, and they are pretty much anyone who is worth knowing 😉



Dr. Jonathan Hall—Assistant Professor

If you’ve ever wondered how our day-to-day lives can impact the wildlife around us, talk to Dr. Hall. Though his research focuses on the effects of subsistence culture, I’m sure he is more conscientious than most of us when comes to an awareness of the human-wildlife interface. An ecologist by training, Dr. Hall’s work has covered the effects of weather patterns on vultures, the effects of cultural conservation practices on biodiversity, and broadscale ecological community interactions in rural India. And even more importantly, as a former Buckeye, he knows that The is part of the name at The Ohio State University.


That’s all for now, folks! Peace, love and science 🙂

Pittsburgh skyline