Creating the Curiosity Rover

My eldest son had an unusual request for Halloween this year: he wants to be the Curiosity Mars Rover, which is currently scheduled to blast off for the red planet on Nov. 25th. He’s been obsessed with Mars and Curiosity since this summer, so I felt compelled to oblige him.

Curiosity’s goal is to figure out whether life can survive on Mars. Unlike rovers past, Curiosity is nuclear, rather than solar powered, meaning it won’t have to hibernate during the Martian winter. It has a sophisticated internal laboratory where it can analyze rock samples it’s “gobbled up.” Overall, the mission uses a lot of cool, new technologies thanks to all those rocket scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Building Cooper’s costume out of an assortment of boxes, wrapping paper tubes, aluminum foil, brads and wire has been quite the endeavor. After a couple of test runs at various Halloween parties, I can sympathize with the folks at JPL. My costume need only survive a walk around the block (a test it failed miserably); JPL is  trying to build something that can withstand the vibrations of launch, the challenges of landing and life on a distant planet.

Oh well, it’s back to the drawing board before we hit the candy trail tonight! My only regret is that I didn’t contact JPL for Curiosity press materials that we could hand out while trick or treating. I’m sure we’ll get a lot of questions about the costume.

If you want to learn more about Curiosity, JPL has a great series of YouTube videos dubbed, “Building Curiosity.” Each clip covers new technologies (landing system, robotic arm, and wheels for example) and tests as Curiosity prepares for launch.

Happy Halloween everybody!

Nonfiction Friday

Children’s nonfiction is hands-down my favorite genre. It wasn’t until my eldest son became obsessed with dinosaurs that I truly appreciated a well-written nonfiction picture book. Kathleen Kudlinkski’s “Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs” (grades 2-4) is a perfect example of how enjoyable and informative nonfiction can be.

The book begins:

“Long, long ago, before people knew anything about dinosaurs, giant bones were found in China. Wise men who saw the bones tried to guess what sort of enormous animal they could have come from.

After they studied the fossil bones, the ancient Chinese decided that they came from dragons. They thought these dragons must have been magic dragons to be so large. And they believed that dragons could still be alive. Boy, were they wrong!”

“Boy, were they wrong,” is Kudlinski’s constant refrain. For me, the most exciting part of this book was learning just how many old theories about dinosaurs scientists have proved wrong. Think dinosaurs are reptiles? No way! Scientists now think dinosaurs’ body temperatures were pretty close to ours — about 98 degrees.

For the first time, I learned that today’s birds are considered “living dinosaurs.” Who knew? (This theory’s been around since the early 1970s, though I didn’t learn about it growing up).

This book’s greatest contribution is showing children that new knowledge is created every day. Scientists do the best they can with the information they have. But, as new discoveries are made, knowledge changes. My sons and I now have a fun time reading older books about dinosaurs and pointing out theories that are now considered outdated.

Water Painting (Minus the Color)

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On a trip to Lowe’s yesterday, my little one insisted on holding the paintbrush that was in our cart. He refused to part with it, even when we got home. He ran into the backyard, dipped the brush into his water table and started painting.

Since painting with water is definitely less mess than sidewalk chalk, I thought this was a brilliant plan. In the garage, I found an old foam, paint roller and another, smaller paintbrush. I discovered that an old yogurt container is the perfect size for holding “paint,” though a small bucket works too.

When my older son got home from school, he joined in the game, painting a portrait of himself (above). The best part of the morning was cleanup, which happened within a few minutes thanks to the sun. As a bonus, I think we even got some of the lingering sidewalk chalk cleaned up too!

Bagel Bird Feeder

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Wondering what to do with a few leftover bagels? Why make a birdfeeder, of course! My children originally came across this idea on National Wildlife Federation’s Wild Animal Baby Explorers TV show. It was quick and easy and perfect for cleaning out the fridge.

You’ll need:

  • Plain bagels, cut in half
  • Newspaper
  • Peanut butter
  • Birdseed
  • String

What you’ll do:

Cut the bagels in half; each half makes one feeder. Lay down newspaper to protect your work surface.

Have the children smear peanut butter all over the cut side of the bagel.

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Sprinkle birdseed onto your newspaper and moosh (that’s a technical term) the peanut butter side into the birdseed so it really sticks.

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Then cut and tie a length of string through the hole in the bagel. Now you’re ready to hang your birdfeeder. Pick a location where you can watch the birds from your window, but make sure the feeder is in an area where you don’t mind falling birdseed.

Business Trip Geography

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My husband is spending a few weeks flying over Antarctica as part of a NASA mission to study ice in the area. This has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to learn about the Antarctic, southern Chile and penguins.

We bought an inexpensive globe at Barnes and Noble for about $30 so we can show the boys where "Daddy" is. We've been lucky, as NASA has online tracking resources so we can track "Daddy's" route over the area when he's flying: http://asp-tracker.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/

However, the Web site http://www.flightaware.com will let you track conventional airline flights anywhere in the world.

No matter where we are traveling, National Geographic's Web site provides a host of resources, some tailored just for kids. We learned about Italy from the site earlier in the year, when my husband had a business trip there (which we missed, sadly).

We'll be learning more about Antarctica from this National Geographic site later this morning. Anarctica: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/antarctica/

You don't have to go to the South Pole to get your kids excited about new places, though cute penguins help. A destination two hours away may be just as exciting to young minds. So, buy a globe, get online and learn about our world.

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Pumpkin Science

My friend Kaley is full of creative ideas for making learning fun. Last year, she put together an after-school Science Club for preschoolers and early elementary children, which met for 45 minutes per week. Each meeting, the kids did an experiment using the scientific method: developing the question, making a prediction (hypothesis), conducting the experiment (procedure), recording observations and results, and drafting a conclusion.

If you have a ton of pumpkins on-hand (and I have nine….don’t ask), this is a fun way to get children thinking analytically. You’ll need:

  • Pumpkins of various sizes
  • A large bucket or tub of water (make sure the pumpkins will fit)
  • Crayons
  • Pencils
  • Pumpkin prediction sheets (I found these at the online Teacher Resource Center: http://www.trcabc.com/wp-content/uploads/Pumpkin-Record.pdf)
  • Knife (if you are going to cut the pumpkins open at the end)

 What you’ll do:

Show the children the pumpkins. You might even let each child pick them up to feel how heavy they are. Hand out the pumpkin prediction sheets, and let each child make an educated guess about whether the pumpkins will sink or float in water. They can check a box and draw a picture on their sheet.

Then conduct the experiment, dropping each pumpkin into the water. Afterward lead a discussion about what the children saw. You can even cut open a pumpkin so everyone can see that a pumpkin is hollow and full of air.

The online Teacher Resource Center has other seasonal experiments as well. With such great resources at your fingertips, you might even be tempted to start your own Science Club.