yard aliens

When we’re in the parks, we often find that there are great critters to look at hiding in the grass or in the bark of trees. It’s great that on See It! days we have lenses and microscopes to see these crawling things up close.

Lately, since we’re not in parks, I’ve been paying more attention to the strange alien forms that I find in my own neighborhood and yard, especially at different times of day. Like, this fantastic creature:

A dragonfly perched on a small tree.

I wonder why the wings are shaped this way? Why are there 4 of them? Can it see me through those eyes? Why does it like to land here on the top of this small tree? Why don’t I see it other times of year? And where did it come from?

A few days later I found a few of these babies scrambling around on some leaves in my garden:

A baby preying mantis in my lettuce.
A baby preying mantis in my lettuce, staring back at me.

Do they look familiar to you? How big do you think they might get? And what are they doing on my lettuce?

And most mysterious of all, I found this empty bug. Really! The outside of the bug was there, but the inside seems to have escaped and left behind this shell!

A left-behind exoskeleton.

Isn’t it funny how the outside of this creature is still clinging to this plant? I wonder what the inside of this alien looks like. And where did it go? And why would it do this kind of escape from its own body, anyway?

What I’m learning is that there’s lots of really interesting life outside that I can discover if I just take the time to watch for it. I’m starting to notice more and different kinds of bees than I remember; and there are birds stopping by that I haven’t seen before. And I’m sure that this will continue to change throughout the summer.

What aliens have you noticed around your home?

sunshine spots

It was a nice morning, and I thought it would be a good choice for me to sit in my backyard and read a book. But it’s easy for me to get distracted, and soon I was really interested in a spot of light that was on my chair:

A spot of sunlight on my chair.
Reading outside, I saw this spot of light on my chair.
(For more information about this great book, see:
https://www.hepg.org/hep-home/books/science-in-the-city)

I wondered what made this spot and I turned around to see how sunlight was coming through this tree behind me:

Sunlight coming through the tree's leaves.
Sunlight coming through my tree.

What I think is really amazing is how all of these leaves and the gaps between them are different shapes, but the light coming through makes circles. I used a white notecard to find more of them:

Spots of sunlight.
Round spots of sunlight made by my tree and the sunlight going through it.

You’ve probably seen spots like this before, maybe without even knowing it. (Once you start to see them in a few places, you might have a hard time not seeing them!) Sometimes under a tree we say that there’s “dappled light,” but it doesn’t matter what you call it. There are funny shapes and a kind of light that photographers and artists like, all made by the overlapping circles of light like this.

Can you find circles of light like this in other places? What do you think makes these circles? Why are there so many? Are there other ways to make these sunshine spots? Could these circles be a picture of something else?

jello optics

Some science investigations are especially fun to do at home. Playing with light and playing with jello are each great activities for indoors. This investigation prompt puts these two things together.

Here’s a video that Adam made himself, in his own home, with no fancy lab or equipment — the kind of setting we that is our favorite for making science. This is just to give you some ideas of where you can start, but there’s lots more you can play with and do.

Adam plays with light and jello at home.

In summary, all you need to do is make a gelatin dessert in your choice of flavor/color. Plain gelatin works great, too, but it doesn’t smell as good. When we make it, we just use half as much water (or don’t add any chilled water) and let the gelatin set in the refrigerator overnight. Then, cut out any shapes you’d like and put them on a surface like wax paper, a cutting board, or even just a clean table. Use a small flashlight or laser pointer to shine through the jello from the side, and observe what the light looks like as it goes into, through, and out of the jello. In my investigation in the video, I discovered some new things about how the light gets bent and focused; and I learned that my yellow jello lets through certain colors of light, but not others. I thought this was all really surprising and interesting, especially knowing that it was all caused by my 99 cent box of generic, lemon dessert.

Many other people do jello optics as well. Our friends at the Exploratorium in San Francisco showcase jello optics as one of their “science snacks.” Once you get started you’ll probably find other experiments to create on your own, and we’d be happy to have you share them with us, either by contacting us or leaving a comment here. Have fun!

Grab-and-Go Science Kits

Today we are going to try a grab-and-go science kit as part of a small demonstration for a local group of kids. Below are instruction videos to use the experiments provided in those kits.

Each kit should include:

10 UV beads

1 film canister

2 alka seltzer packets

2 helicopter templates

2 paper clips

Instructions:

slime science

In recent years, “slime” has become a big hit. You can find kits and recipes for it in craft stores, and we know lots of kids who have become expert slime artisans. Just for the record, we’ve been putting slime into baggies for kids to mix since we started Science in the Parks. We’d like to think we started the craze.

Here’s our own basic recipe. When we make this it includes hundreds of bags of the glue mix, along with a big container of the borax mix that we squirt into each scientist’s baggie:

  • Mix 2 TABLEspoons (30 ml) of White Elmer’s Glue and 4 teaspoons (20 ml) of water (and food coloring if desired) in a plastic bag. Seal the bag and set it aside. This is a nice single-serving portion. Make as many bags as you will need in advance.
  • Stir together 2/3 cup (160 ml) warm water and 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of Borax laundry booster (available with laundry products at many grocery stores) in a separate cup. The Borax should all dissolve in the water to make a solution. (From this solution you can make many bags of slime.)
  • Add 4 teaspoons (20 ml) of the Borax solution to the plastic bag with the glue mix. Mix the ingredients around in the bag, and once it starts to all stick together, you can remove the “slime” from the bag and hold it in your hands. It will get less sticky as you continue to play with it.

Of course, an important feature of science and engineering is playing around with the variables. You can change any of these portions and see what happens. You’ll notice that our good friend at Georgia State University, “Dr. Science” (Brian Williams), along with his assistant and slime expert, Kaya, seems to just get a feel for the right proportions of ingredients. They give great explanations of what makes slime slimey. They also use a different glue than we do. It’s fun to compare!

Making slime with Kaya and her assistant, Dr. Science

Once you’ve made any slime or collection of different slimes, you could come up with your own questions and investigations:

  • How long does it take take to drip? How would you measure this? Under what conditions? (Video can be a great way to record things so you can go back and measure times and distances really closely.)
  • How fast does your slime ooze? Does it depend on how close together your fingers are? What else would it ooze through and how would that change the speed or other features of the oozing slime? (We have a lot of fun just typing “ooze” over and over.)
  • How well does your slime stick? What things does it stick to? How do you even measure the stickiness?
  • How does your slime respond to different temperatures?
  • Does your slime bounce?
  • How long does it take for the slime to go from a ball to a flat pancake?
  • And on and on . . .

We get breathless just thinking about all the possibilities. Coming up with the question you want to ask and the way you want to study it is one of the most challenging and creative and important parts of doing science. Don’t be afraid to start by just playing.

Let us know what you find out if you have a chance!

By the way, we have our slime recipe along with lots of other “goo” recipes on this resource page. We’re sure you can find lots of others as well!