real science for today's homeschooler

What is my Ecological Footprint?

What is my Ecological Footprint?

Our children have a very egocentric view of life and, through limited life experience, they typically assume everyone has the same type of lifestyle as they do. While we talk a lot about conservation, how do we really measure up to other people? As you study ecology and conservation with your child, go online with them to take one of two Ecological Footprint Quizzes to reveal the size of your family’s ecological footprint. The first EFQ is very visual and fairly basic and simple and would be the best for younger children. The second EFQ is more in depth and would be great for older children.

The results that come up from the first quiz will reveal several interesting facts . . . and they may surprise you! How many acres of land are needed to sustain your lifestyle? How does that compare to the average person? If everyone had the same lifestyle as you, how many earths would we need to survive? The second quiz gives results about the number of earths needed to sustain you, and a breakdown of what areas of your lifestyle are consuming the most natural resources.

The first quiz is provided by an organization called “The Global Footprint Network” and the second by “The Center for Sustainable Ecology.” Besides the quizzes you can also find a good bit of information on conservation at either website. The quizzes are definitely eye-opening and can lead to some great discussions about protecting the environment and conservation of natural resources.

Share this on...Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook

Water Conservation

Water Conservation

How many times do you have to remind your kids . . . “Turn off the water!” . . . or, “Turn off the light when you leave the room!” Kids are forgetful and they sometimes need help developing good conservation habits. Here’s a simple activity that will make your kids aware of how much water they can waste simply by brushing their teeth!

1. Find a large bowl that will just fit into the sink to collect water running from the faucet.

2. Have your child brush their teeth as they typically do, leaving the water running the entire time.

3. When they finish brushing and rinsing, measure the volume of the water collected in the bowl. You can use any measurement that works for the tools you have on hand. Cups might be the best, as you can convert your final measurements into gallons. Students have a good concept of how much a gallon is when they think about a gallon of milk.

4. Repeat the process, but this time, have your child turn off the water when they are not using it to wet the toothbrush, rinse, etc. When finished, measure the amount of water used.

5. Have your child subtract the difference between the amount of water used when running the faucet the entire time and when only turning it on when necessary. Convert to gallons: 1 gallon = 16 cups.

6. Finally, have your child calculate the number of times they brush their teeth in one year. Multiply by the amount of water that can be saved at each brushing. The amount of water wasted each year by letting the faucet run is surprising!

7. To extend for older children . . . multiply that amount of water by the number of people in your household to see how much water the family could save in one year. Then, help your child read a recent water bill to determine how much your utility company charges per gallon of water. Use that figure to calculate the amount of money your family could save by turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth!

Disclaimer: If you follow this project through to the very end, be ready for your child to transform into the “faucet police”! 🙂 Once children “see” the results of conservation techniques they do tend to become aware of what everyone around them is doing!

Share this on...Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook

Teaching Kids about Consumerism and Conservation

Teaching Kids about Consumerism and Conservation

Let’s face it, the advertising world targets your kids every day. What child hasn’t been disappointed after saving for months for a toy, only to find it doesn’t measure up to what the commercial promised? In my science classes I teach my students how science can be used to objectively test claims made by advertisers . . . in other words, how to be wise consumers. Here’s a fun idea that actually came from one of my students. It combines a lesson about consumerism, along with a lesson about conservation.

Design an experiment to test which is more cost efficient, using disposable or rechargeable batteries. I’ll list some of the variables to consider below, but your child can easily design this experiment themselves for some hands on practice using the scientific method.

1. Pick comparable battery brands to test. If you pick a name brand disposable battery, don’t compare it to a cheap store brand rechargeable, etc.
2. Use the same size battery of each type.
3. Test the battery life in the same way. An example would be using the battery to run any small electronic device. Measure the time the device remains in operation. Use the same device for both types of batteries, and keep the device under the same conditions (temperature, volume, etc.)
4. Decide on exactly what you’re comparing. Are you comparing the amount of time each battery will keep the device running? If so, you may want to also test different brands of each type. Are you trying to determine which type (disposable vs rechargeable) battery costs less in the long run? In that case, you’ll need to also factor in how many times the rechargeable can be recharged vs how many disposable batteries would have to be purchased to get the same result.

Again, those are just some suggestions of things to consider when designing the experiment. Your child will have plenty of ideas of their own. Gently guide them into using the scientific method to design their experiment so their results are valid.

Extensions of this lab are limitless! Older students can research the amount of waste produced by batteries or the amount of nonrenewable resources are used in the manufacturing of batteries. Find battery commercials or ads for the different brands and types tested. Challenge students to evaluate the claims made by the manufacturers based on the results of their experiment. This will usually lead to a discussion about the accuracy of claims made about other products. Encourage your child to select several products that are commonly used in your home and put them to the test! Teaching kids not to believe everything they see and hear from the media, and teaching them that they have the power to evaluate these claims for themselves is a valuable life lesson!

Share this on...Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook

Growing Bacteria at Home

Growing Bacteria at Home

First, a warning . . . if you grow bacteria at home there is always a possibility you could grow large amounts of harmful bacteria that could make someone in your household sick. Always use proper safety precautions when growing bacteria! Some safety hints are included below, but always, always use common sense when handling any bacteria culture.

When bacteria cultures are grown in the lab the bacteria is grown in shallow containers (Petri dishes) on a layer of nutrient agar. These supplies can be expensive, but you can simulate this setup at home with substitute ingredients.

First, the containers . . . any shallow, disposable container will work. The smaller the container, the less base material you’ll need. Very important safety tip . . . the container should NEVER be closed up air tight! Some of the most harmful types of bacteria are anaerobic, meaning they grow when there is no oxygen present. Be sure your bacteria culture is always exposed to oxygen! Leave the lids of your containers loose.

Next, the nutrient agar. Agar is just a plant-based gelatin. You can buy it from science supply stores, or you can use a substitute. I’ve heard of people using plain gelatin powder from the grocery store, but animal-based gelatin melts at around room temperature. Also, some bacteria are able to produce a chemical that breaks down animal-based gelatin. So, I don’t recommend using plain gelatin powder like Knox, as you may come out with a watery mess!

Instead, look for “agar agar” which is a flake type gelatin made from seaweed. It’s used as a thickener in many Asian foods and it can usually be found in Asian grocery stores, or any large grocery that has an Asian foods section. You just dissolve the flakes in boiling water and then cool to room temperature to solidify.

Gelatin alone won’t serve as a food source to encourage bacteria growth, so you need to add some type of nutrient media to the agar agar when heating. I would suggest adding a beef bouillon cube. It adds a food source to your gelatin, and its high salt content will often suppress the growth of bacteria that is at home in the human body (and may cause illness). Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t grow a harmful bacteria, just that it helps lessen the possibility! Caution should still be used in handling the bacteria cultures!

A final note about safety . . . never, never allow someone to culture their throat or nose, or cough into a dish. A relatively “safe” source of microorganisms to culture for small children is soil bacteria and fungi. Dig up some dirt, add enough water to thoroughly soak the soil, and allow the mixture to soak for 10 minutes. Then pour a little of the water onto the growth medium and spread it around. Soil is full of harmless bacteria and fungi that will grow a very impressive culture in the container!

Share this on...Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook

Backyard Ecology

Backyard Ecology

No matter whether you live in the country or the city, your child can observe nature close to home. Help your child be a nature detective to discover the ecosystem existing right in their own backyard.

First, help your child identify what types of plants and animals they are realistically likely to see. If you have land in the country they’re likely to observe large mammals such as deer and racoons. If you have a tiny backyard in the city, help your child realize that they will be looking for small animals such as insects, lizards, birds, etc.

Depending on the age and interest of your child, prepare a plan to capture an image of the plants and animals they find. A digital camera works well, but if your child likes to draw they can turn the ecosystem hunt into an art project.

Over a span of a week or two, sit quietly outside with your child and observe nature. Have them find as many different plants and animals as possible. To find some of the more shy animals, help your child turn over rocks and other objects in the yard or on the porch. Try observing at different times of day, and even go outside with a flashlight at night to find animals that come out after dark.

For younger children you may just want to print out the photos and identify the different types of plants and animals found. They can make a collage or a notebook to display what’s living in their backyard. Older children may also want to research what each type of animal eats and design a food web based on that information. One method is to glue the images on a poster board. Then draw arrows going from the prey (or plant) to the predator. Older students can then examine their food web to infer other animals that might be a part of their backyard ecosystem that were never observed.

Whether you focus on the exploration or turn the project into an in depth ecology lesson, your child is sure to gain an appreciation for nature’s ability to sustain life anywhere!

Share this on...Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook