• The Energy Beneath Your Feet

    Posted by Julia Rothchild on Thursday, August 07, 2014 ( 0 )
    When the house feels cold in the winter, I turn up the thermostat. But not without a twinge of guilt. I know that at the touch of a button on the little white control box, a furnace hidden somewhere around the house starts huffing and puffing. To churn out hot air it guzzles electricity, which is unfortunately neither renewable nor environmentally friendly: most electricity is made in power plants from coal or natural gas. Burning any of these materials releases toxins into the air. These in turn contribute to raising temperatures and air pollution levels all over the world. The touch of a button on a thermostat nudges the furnace into electricity-consuming action. (Image from here.)

  • If You Can't Stand the Heat…

    Posted by Cathy Wang on Monday, August 04, 2014 ( 0 )
    The Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) is proud to celebrate another successful year of sponsoring and hosting the 2014 Smithsonian Science Education Academies for Teachers (SSEATs). Last week, the SSEC wrapped up Energy: Past, Present, Future—an academy dedicated to understanding the history of energy production, the current state of energy needs, and future technologies to enhance energy efficiency and conservation. On average, Americans have the world’s largest energy consumption while accounting for less than 5% of its population. Americans also account for a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. We rely heavily on fossil fuels (natural gas, oil, and coal) for more than 80% of our energy needs. With oil and natural gas reserves increasing by 30–40% in the past few decades, what used to be a crisis of energy sources is now an issue of fossil fuel misuse. The aftermath of this energy misuse is directly related to our current global climate change crisis, a fact that presenters throughout the week emphasized. Global climate change is now a relatively accepted concept across the global community, but what is scarier than growing caron dioxide levels is the rate at which these emissions continue to increase. We are now taxed with the responsibility of halting the current rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

  • Five Things to Know About Biomimicry

    Posted by Julia Rothchild on Thursday, July 31, 2014 ( 0 )
    The word is difficult to parse. Try this: bio-mimic-ry. Though not so easy on the eyes, the word lucidly explains its own meaning: biomimicry is the imitation of designs and processes found in nature. It asks how we humans can benefit from mimicking the intricate and graceful systems displayed by life forms all over the world. The concept relies on the fact that organisms have been evolving and improving themselves for billions of years, and in many cases have developed near optimal solutions for confronting the physical challenges presented byliving on Earth. As we worry more earnestly and often about how modern technology is a cumbersome imposition on the environment, scientists, artists, and inventors are looking to the natural world to inspire new designs that could imbue human methods of living with more elegance. Here are five topics in biomimicry that are worth time and attention.

  • SSEC Summer School

    Posted by Patti Marohn on Wednesday, July 23, 2014 ( 0 )
    Some professionals may be a little bit jealous that teachers get the summer off. Well, teachers don’t necessarily get the whole summer off. Laser i3 school districts in North Carolina, Texas, and New Mexico are currently undergoing summer professional development that brings the teachers back into the classroom and puts them on the other side of the desk. Two groups of teachers participated in training in Houston, Texas, last week. The first participants were elementary and middle school teachers whose schools are currently using units from the Science and Technology Concepts (STC)TM curriculum. The sessions focused on deepening content knowledge through inquiry while strengthening pedagogy, exploring student thinking, and learning to address misconceptions in a peer-to-peer setting. For example, in grades 1 and 2, they may teach students about clouds in a unit on weather. Learning would focus on different types of clouds, some names of clouds, and what the different types look like. To increase background knowledge, the facilitators and co-facilitators introduce some higher-level content, like under what type of pressure and density conditions the clouds form and how convection in the atmosphere helps create the weather that we experience around us. The discussions on pressure and density are not designed to be taken back and taught in a first- or second-grade classroom; rather, they give the teachers a richer foundation of understanding and more of the backstory that relates to the subjects they teach.

  • Bugs, Biomimicry, and Biodiversity

    Posted by Lauren DiVito on Monday, July 21, 2014 ( 0 )
    A Smithsonian Science Education Academy for Teachers event Two weeks ago, the Smithsonian museums and research facilities were filled with the sights and sounds of adults mimicking insect mating calls, hunting for organisms in brackish water, and allowing African Giant Millipedes to scurry across their willing hands. These adults were participants in the Smithsonian Science Education Academies for Teachers (SSEATS), week-long events focusing on the professional development of science educators. Emphasis is placed on inquiry-based teaching to facilitate effective learning in the sciences. Throughout the week, 20 teachers from all across the country gained a behind-the-scenes look at exhibits within the Smithsonian, participated in hands-on presentations with various scientists, and hiked through the historic Java Trail—land which has been used by Native Americans, colonists, and dairy farmers—all the while discovering creative ways to incorporate the overall theme of biodiversity into their classrooms. Biodiversity refers to the variety of different species within a region, and while the week included a look at creatures local to Washington, DC, the teachers were also given creative ideas and resources for completing similar tasks within their own cities. EntomologistsNate Erwin, who was with the Smithsonian for 20 years and is currently a freelance biologist, and Gary Hevel, who has been with the Institution for 45 years, spent the day sharing their love of bugs. The participants were given a look into Gary’s 25-drawer project, a collection of over 4,000 different species obtained from his backyard over a period of four years. His collection included a golden bug hypothesized to be the star of an Edgar Allen Poe short story, a Sunset moth considered by most to be the prettiest of all the butterflies, and the largest beetle in the Eastern USA—aptly named the Hercules beetle. He concluded his tour by encouraging the group and the public to go out, collect, record, and illustrate. “There’s so many darn things out there!” Entomologist, Gary Hevel, displaying thebeauty of the Sunset Moth.

  • Chronicling Climate Change

    Posted by Julia Rothchild on Friday, July 11, 2014 ( 0 )
    From their lookout in the White Mountains of the western United States, the bristlecone pines have seen it all. They watched from afar as the Confederates suffered heavy losses at Union hands; they heard the scratch of Shakespeare’s quill; they heard the first fireworks bang at their invention in China; they listened to the grinding of stones as the Egyptians erected the Great Pyramid at Giza. Through practically every point in human history – for the last 5,000 years – these trees have remained steadfast witnesses, rooted in the soil. The bristlecone pines have not lived so long because the environment favored their existence. To the contrary: they grow in extremely harsh environments, high up in the mountains. Scathing winds, highly acidic soil, little oxygen, and cold, long winters have barraged these trees literally for millennia. The natural world has not been especially kind to them. Bristlecone pine trees are gnarled and old. They grow at the high altitude of 10,000 feet above sea level. (Image from here.)

  • New Mexico Students Start a Science Club

    Posted by Dana Bulba on Tuesday, July 08, 2014 ( 0 )
    Halfway through the 2013-2014 school year, two third-grade students approached Atalaya Elementary School principal Diane Katenmeyer-Delgado and asked if they could start a science club. Principal Katenmeyer-Delgado, supported the idea but told the two girls that they needed a teacher to oversee the program. After only a few weeks, the girls had succeeded … they convinced sixth-grade teacher Ms. Michels to take the lead. Together, the team recruited nearly 15 sixth grade students to lead science activities and roughly 30 third through fifth grade students to participate as learners. “It was an amazing thing to see happen,” said principal Katenmeyer-Delgado.

  • This Bug's a Bummer!

    Posted by Julia Rothchild on Monday, July 07, 2014 ( 0 )
    On a daily basis, entomologists scoop up tarantulas lovingly and avidly spear dead beetles with pins. But there is one type of bug that no amount of affection for creepy-crawlies can redeem in their eyes: the brown marmorated stink bug. Entomologists hate this insect. Brown and streaked like marble, the bugs are less than an inch long and are shaped like shields. After arriving from Asia in the 1990s, they have become the bane of U.S. agriculture. The bugs swarm in huge numbers to attack soybeans, corn, apples, pears, peaches, and more. They suck juices from the fruits, leaving brown sores and dents. No customers want to buy blemished produce; as a result, the bugs are driving farmers and orchard growers across the mid-Atlantic and South states out of business. Brown marmorated stink bugs descend on farms and orchards and leave fruit brown and dented that cannot be sold. The bugs arecreating enormous economic damage. (Image by Doug Pfeiffer from here.)

  • How Fireworks Rain Color

    Posted by Julia Rothchild on Thursday, July 03, 2014 ( 0 )
    Sitting on a picnic blanket on July 4, you stare up at the star-studded sky. It is a dusky deep blue, still glowing faintly by the light of the recently set sun. The grass and trees below are similarly dimly lit, all painted shadowy gray. Suddenly, a boom and flash of light announce the arrival of an intruder into this monochrome world: RED. The color sprouts up above, like a fountain pen spattering an inky hue that stains the sky. Fireworks during the Clinton Inaugural events of 1993. These red fireworks may have been created using lithium. (Image by Nicholas Parrella from here.) The syringe that has injected color into the atmosphere is, of course, an aerial firework, propelled from the ground by gunpowder and a lit fuse. The firework is a neat package of chemistry wrapped in paper, a capsule filled with a whole smattering of the periodic table. Wrapped inside it are heavy metals, like lithium, sodium, and potassium; metals you may never have heard of, like strontium and rubidium; elements you eat, like iron, sodium, and zinc; and elements in your lungs, like carbon and oxygen. Some of these are there because they compose the fuel that propels the bundle into the air. Other ingredients create smoke or glitter effects or sparks. And some of them create explosive color.

  • Inside One Wasp's Lair

    Posted by Julia Rothchild on Tuesday, July 01, 2014 ( 0 )
    When it comes to bugs, I’m pretty squeamish. So when Bob Matthews, aProfessor Emeritus of Entomologyat the University of Georgia, handed me two clay tubes fused together and told me to break them open with tweezers to look for paralyzed spiders, fly cocoons, and live wasp larvae, I really didn’t want to do it. I was shamed into action by the fearlessness of the people at lab benches around me: K-12 teachers from all over the U.S. who had come to Washington, D.C. for Biodiversity Week, a professional development training course that is part of the Smithsonian Science Educational Academies for Teachers (SSEATS). The teachers set right to work, poking the insect-laden tubes with pencils and breaking them apart with their hands. Slightly curved and about five inches long, the tubes on the paper plate in front of me had been broken off of a nest made by a wasp called an organ pipe mud dauber. The wasp’s name reflects its primary calling in life: building a series of hollow mud tubes that together look like Pan’s flute. By carrying mud in her mouth one tiny morsel at a time to a spot in a barn, under a bridge, or in some other protected area, the female wasp painstakingly molds the nest where she will deposit her eggs. An organ pipe mud dauber. (Image by Jon Triffo from

STEMVisions highlights ideas, best practices, research and successes in science education.