Hands-on science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) activities for informal educators.


Working—and working out —in space

NASA’s Space Shuttle program may be ending, but astronauts still face the challenge of spending long periods in space on the International Space Station (ISS) and future planetary missions.

Astronaut Sandy Magnus knows the rigors of working and working out in space. A mission specialist on the final shuttle mission, she also spent more than four months on the ISS. Besides all the science she did on the space station, she had to exercise two hours every day—including being strapped to the treadmill so she wouldn’t float out of position.

Working out in space helps keep an astronaut’s body from losing critical bone and muscle mass. Learners on Earth can get a workout and explore how astronauts do what they do in activities such as

Mission: Control!

Base Station Walk-Back

and Jump for the Moon.


That’s what happened when NASA accepted a proposal from Neighborhood After School Science Association (NASSA) students in Ava, New York for an experiment to be carried out on the International Space Station. The students designed their experiment, “Flight of Paper Rockets Launched by Air Cannon,” to determine the direction and distance traveled by a paper air rocket launched in microgravity.

Want to explore the science of air cannons with learners here on Earth? Check out activities such as

Air Cannon and Mini Vortex: Build an Air Cannon.

For more information about all the winning student proposals for ISS experiments, visit NASA’s Kids in Micro-G project.

Posted in Topics: Earth and Space Science, Educator Profiles, Engineering and Technology, General, SMILE e-newsletter

No Comments

Solar S’mores—hot fun in the summertime!

Ingredients: graham crackers, marshmallows, chocolate, SUN!

SmoresWith the days getting longer until June 21 (the summer solstice), there’s plenty of sun for solar fun. One recipe for sweet solar success (now or this summer) is melting s’mores in a Solar Oven —no campfire needed!

A cardboard-box solar oven that you make yourself, placed in a very sunny spot on a very warm day, can melt s’mores in just about 15 minutes, though building the solar oven will take a bit longer…

Whether you build your oven in advance, or have learners design and build with you, introduce the concept of solar energy before you start melting, suggests solar chef Josh Sarver. When not wearing his “chef’s hat,” Sarver is Senior Director of Experience Design and Production at COSI, a national partner. He has seen that getting learners to think about energy before they use it deepens their scientific understanding.

Ask learners to share what they already know about heat from the Sun, he says, or talk about what energy sources their families use to heat food and water. Then get learners involved with choosing the sunniest location for their oven, setting it up, and of course putting the graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate all together. “Allowing kids to help direct the experience creates more interest among them, and expands the activity from just fun to guided inquiry,” Sarver observes.

You can expand the scope of learning even further (maybe after all the s’mores are happily and messily devoured) by showing pictures or talking about people in other countries where sources of heat energy, like wood or fuel oil, are harder to get and where solar energy can be critical to everyday life.

(Note: A tip from the COSI “solar kitchen”—repeated, and tasty, experimentation has shown that different brands of chocolate chips melt at different rates and in different ways. Chips with a waxier surface don’t melt quite as well!)

Photo courtesy

Posted in Topics: Educator Profiles, General, Web site, Outdoor and Nature, SMILE e-newsletter

No Comments

Close Encounters of the Brainy Kind

Marian Diamond

Marian Diamond keeps her brain in a hatbox—not her own brain, but the preserved human brain she shows in her famously popular anatomy lectures at the University of California, Berkeley. Holding the brain gently in her gloved hands, Professor Diamond introduces her students (including 1.5 million YouTube viewers) to this cell mass that weighs only three pounds yet “can conceive of a universe a billion light years across.”

Diamond has been leading hands-on encounters with the brain, as a scientist and a mother, since her own children were in elementary school and she brought brains from her lab to share with the whole class. “Students want to know if the brain can change as it ages,” Diamond says. You bet it can. Diamond’s renowned research at Berkeley has found that with enrichment, the brain can continue to grow even in later life.

The American Association of University Women, a national partner, named Diamond the Distinguished Senior Woman Scholar in America. As a UC professor and as past director of the Lawrence Hall of Science, she has championed hands-on science education in nearby neighborhood schools, across the nation, and around the world. Diamond sees the hands as metaphors for how the brain learns. “I consider the hands as two big nerve cells,” she explains. “The palm is the nerve cell body, the fingers are dendrites that pick up the stimulus, and the arm is the axon that transmits the information.”

Wherever she meets curious young students, Diamond uses hands-on materials to illustrate neuroscience and other aspects of anatomy. In a remote village in Cambodia, it wasn’t preserved brains at her fingertips, but fresh beef hearts and lungs provided by the cook from Diamond’s hotel. Diamond can enlist even the simplest objects, like bean bags (that she sewed), to engage kids anywhere in informal lessons that teach hand-eye coordination, or the force of gravity, or just plain FUN.

“In any language, having fun is extremely important to learning and brain development,” she observes. Physical activity is equally important because “the body needs the brain and the brain needs the body.”

Diamond follows her own teaching at age 84, simultaneously keeping her body and brain fit by playing ping-pong with lots of laughter tossed into the game. “After all,” she explains, with a brilliant and knowing smile, “laughing increases circulation to the brain!”

Every activity at exercises the brain. For some that specifically teach about brain function, try

Draw Your Nervous System

The Domino Effect: Model a Nerve Cell’s Signal Transmission or

Train Your Brain.

And don’t forget to laugh!

Photo © Luna Productions (

Posted in Topics: Educator Profiles, Web site, Human Body, Human Senses and Perception, Life Sciences

No Comments

Engaging all five senses in hands-on science

Dr. Reynaga with blind learners

Quick, picture DNA. Chances are you’ll call to mind a diagram you’ve seen meant to represent this microscopic ‘blueprint of life:” twin helixes running in opposite directions and connected by horizontal bars.

But what if you’ve never seen such a diagram, and indeed never will? What if the sense upon which so much of science teaching and learning relies—seeing—is not available to you?

Dr. Christina Reynaga Peña—a Mexican research mycologist on leave from Mexico’s CINVESTAV (The Center for Research and Advanced Studies) and spending a year at Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science—asked herself that same question a few years back, when she was charged with teaching basic biology to children from a school for the blind.

“Most of the popular activities [to teach biology] are 90 percent visual,” she says. “I felt quite uneasy about not having something interesting and appropriate for the visually challenged students.”


She and her colleagues did prepare a few activities for these learners, but were unsatisfied with the outcome. The seed had been planted, though, and when Dr. Reynaga later met Isaias Hernandez from the Museo de la Luz (the Museum of Light, at the Autonomous University in Mexico City, or UNAM) at a conference, she was fascinated by the activities he and his team had created for blind students.

“His work inspired me to create our own models for teaching biology to blind children,” says Dr. Reynaga.

At CINVESTAV, Dr. Reynaga created 3-D models to teach biology and produced a series of DVDs showing teachers how to lead science workshops on plant and fungal biology topics. “We have kinesthetic materials, for instance, to teach about cells,” Dr. Reynaga explains. “Their parts, their shape, their function, the differences among them, and how they form tissues.”

cell of fabric

The workshops are for all students, but owe a debt to Dr. Reynaga’s work with blind learners in that the learning strategies employed engage as many senses as possible. Not only do the workshops use hands-on activities and 3-D materials, they also encourage the use of edible and/or scented materials that engage learners’ senses of smell and taste.

Try this at home

Any educator can begin to incorporate sensory strategies into his or her teaching, says Dr. Reynaga. She encourages teachers to pretend for a moment that they themselves are blind. “If you do the exercise of being blindfolding for a few minutes, you can feel how your visually impaired students perceive the world, and then come up with new, multi-sensorial ways of teaching that are suitable for all students.”

Where can you find examples of these models and activities? Watch this space. “Our web page will be updated soon to include them,” says Dr. Reynaga.

In the meantime, close your eyes. Let go of the visual, and imagine how you might engage all five senses when you teach kids about science.

Bay Area is science heaven for parents and teachers

While at the Lawrence Hall of Science, Dr. Reynaga is exploring new ways to measure science learning, especially methods that take into account tactile and kinesthetic approaches to hands-on science. She’s also working with, assessing the site’s Spanish language activities and helping to locate more hands-on science activities suitable for blind and visually impaired students.

Though she and her daughter, who is 18, and her son, 11, are still getting settled in their temporary home, already Dr. Reynaga is impressed by the informal science learning possibilities in the Bay Area. “With several museums and science centers within a short distance,” she says, “this feels like heaven for parents and teachers concerned about the science education of their children. And web resources are state of the art, so it all comes down to a matter of will.”

In contrast, she says, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, where she worked for a time, there are just two science museums in the entire state. “And I have to say, we are privileged; some states do not have any! Large areas are economically and educationally underdeveloped, plus a good part of the population does not have access to internet or does not know how to use it.”

Response to Dr. Reynaga’s work in Mexico

Dr. Reynaga’s work has been featured in the Mexican press, on Azteca TV, Yahoo Mexico, and in articles in Guanajuato’s Correo newspaper and in Wawis, an online magazine in Mexico City. Dr. Regnaga herself won recognition in 2007 as an “Inventor and Innovator” in a program sponsored by Mexico’s National Women’s Institute, the Ministry of Economy, and the Mexican Academy of Sciences.


1. Dr. Reynaga and visually impaired students, learning about fungi in everyday life

2. 3-D model of ovule

3. 3-D model of a cell, made of fabric

Posted in Topics: Diversity, Educator Profiles, Life Sciences

No Comments

Allergic to his dissertation topic, Michael Edwards found a cure in informal science

Michael Edwards and kidsWhen Michael Edwards moved from Aberdeen, Scotland, to New Brunswick, Canada, he intended to earn a PhD in biology. But he had to abandon that plan when he developed an allergy to the potato beetles he was working with.

The doctoral program’s loss was informal science’s gain; reasoning that he had enjoyed the teaching aspect of his PhD program more than the research, Michael volunteered at Science East in Fredericton (New Brunswick), where he soon became the center’s Director of Programming.

Michael has become a pro at finding high-quality hands-on science activities. He scours the internet, Googling his way around; when he stumbles on the inevitable outdated sites with bad science or broken links, he quickly moves on.

When he learned of at the recent Association of Science & Technology Centers’ annual conference, he was smitten—and relieved. “My favorite feature is simply the reliability of the site,” he says. “We always get asked by teachers and parents about where to go on the internet to find good science activity ideas. Now I can happily send them to and know they will find something useful.”

SMILE: How did you end up at Science East?

Michael: I had been to science centres before and loved the learning environment they offered, so when I heard of one starting in Fredericton I got in touch with them and started doing some stuff for them as a volunteer—that was back before they even had a permanent centre. While I wasn’t really paying attention, it turned into a full-time job. Fifteen years later I’m still doing it.

Science East, built in the former York County Gaol (Jail), is the only science centre in the province of New Brunswick. We’re a little on the small side—only 9 full-time staff—but we go all over the province and work with all ages, from pre-kindergarten all the way up to university students and teachers.

I love trying to build stuff, test out ideas and mess about with them to see what happens. It doesn’t always turn out successfully, but that’s half the fun.

SMILE: What piqued your interest in science, way back when?

Michael: Like so many people involved in science education, I had a teacher who actually nurtured all my questions and gave me books and other things to help deal with my curiosity. And that continued throughout my time in school, even in university.

SMILE: What’s your favorite activity and why?

Michael: I love the Magnus Glider for a few reasons. First of all, I love how easy it is to make, and nobody ever expects that it will fly. Then when you show them, they can’t stop playing with it. I also love the flexibility of it—you can modify and change it in so many ways as you play with the concept. Finally, I love how finally gave me a name for the activity. I always just called it the Flying Cups. but Magnus Glider sounds a lot more impressive.

SMILE: Do you read the SMILE blog?

Michael: I’ve enjoyed the series of frog articles for no particular reason. Learning that there is a toad that smells of peanut butter amuses me immensely.

Read Michael’s full story.

Posted in Topics: Educator Profiles, Engineering and Technology, Web site, Life Sciences

No Comments

NASA’s Jim Stofan on DIY rockets and the sixteen dialects of finch

Jim StofanQ: What started Jim Stofan on the path of science education that eventually landed him at the DC headquarters of the country’s premier space agency?

A: The story begins with a bang–and a tweet.

From a young age, Jim was fascinated with rockets. But it was a seed-eating songbird that first sparked his interest in science.

Now NASA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Integration, Jim spent his formative years in San Francisco. He was the son of two teachers and the nephew of the California Academy’s curator of ornithology. Jim’s uncle was especially interested in finches.

finch“He was the kind of uncle you’d see at Christmas,” says Jim. “The one all the kids gravitated to and the parents thought was too weird. He spoke 16 dialects of finch. He was able to tell you, ‘This bird comes from Chinatown’, or ‘That one lives out at Ocean Beach, and that one’s cheating on his wife over in the other tree.’ He really made science come alive.”

Following in his uncle’s (out-in-the-field) footsteps

With his uncle and his educator parents as role models, Jim says he spent most of his childhood learning about science in a hands-on, dynamic way-outside the classroom.

“And I ended up going in to a similar field as my uncle,” Jim continues. “When I first got to Sea World, I was a guide in their native species program, teaching folks about endangered Florida species, like manatees. I would do field ecology with students-take them out into the field, scuba diving; I would lead marine field studies down at the Keys. These are things you can’t do in a classroom. You can’t go out and do a night trawl, picking up microscopic creatures, and bringing them back into the lab to learn about them. But out in the field, all that becomes possible.”

A personal relationship with the natural world

Getting kids and educators out into the field, participating in hands-on experiences, has always been Jim’s passion. “When I worked at the National Wildlife Federation,” he recalls, “I tired to convey to kids and families that even if they don’t live out in the woods, there are ways to get back to nature, and learn about the world around them. It all starts with a personal connection to the natural world.”

In addition to his interest in animals and marine sciences, he’s still, of course, a fan of rockets, and thinks they make for compelling hands-on science.

“We do them in a variety of ways,” says Stofan, speaking not of the spacecraft NASA launches into the stratosphere but of the hands-on activities the agency has developed to teach kids about science. “Anything from little pop rockets-made out of construction paper, put in a film canister, then propelled by half an Alka Seltzer tablet and a little water–to rocketry challenges for older students, where they develop their own significantly powered rockets that can fly up to a mile. It’s about giving students the hands-on opportunity to understand the basics of propulsion.” partners with NASA

When began collaborating with NASA, the informal science site’s store of rocket science activities shot through the roof, so to speak. From Foam Rockets to Rocket Wind Tunnel to Pop Can Hero Engine, now counts many NASA gems among its hundreds of space science activities.

Posted in Topics: Earth and Space Science, Ecology, Educator Profiles, Outdoor and Nature

No Comments

Stop motion animations on a shoestring: Make your own science videos

videomaking at SMMHave you been meaning to create some simple videos, maybe to illustrate your favorite hands-on science activity?

If you already have a high-end digital video camera, professional backdrops and lighting, and FinalCut pro, you can stop reading right now.

But what if you don’t have any of that equipment, and still want to make some stop action animations or do time-lapse photography to capture, say, a chemical reaction or weather patterns?

Let’s get some advice from Asia Ward and Peter Kirschmann of  Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM), who make very cool videos for relatively little money. They’ve already made several videos of activities, including the Pickle Battery video and the Water Pressure Blaster video (on activity page, scroll down and look for video on the lower left).

Check out their step-by-step tips on how to make science videos. It’s set up like a hands-on activity, with a Materials List that includes an inexpensive webcam, some editing software, and a light table you can make for under $30.

Why video? has been putting  a lot of effort into making videos of its hands-on math and science activities, as well as making it easy for users to upload their own videos to Sherry Hsi, SMILE Principal Investigator and Research Director at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, explains why.

“Videos lower the barrier to anyone who might be intimidated by working with hands-on materials. They allow us to reach educators in yet another way–not just through downloadable instructions for hands-on activities, but also with visual and aural representations of the activity itself.

“And digital videos let community members contribute their tips, tricks, and mods of an activity to the broader informal science teaching community.

“Because digital video cameras and production tools are so ubiquitous in mobile computers and smart phones, videos are a great way for people to share STEM knowledge and exchange teaching practices.

It’s a wonderful way to grow distributed expertise across multiple learning organizations.

In the photo above, Asia and Peter manipulate a green felt hand across a mock-up of the SMILE web site to make the Pickle Battery Video.

Posted in Topics: Chemistry, Engineering and Technology, Web site

No Comments

Mapping data to change minds: a lesson from 1854

cholera map London 1854With free tools like Google Earth and mapbuilder so widely available, these days it seems that everyone’s a mapmaker.

But mapping data to location in an effort to reveal previously unseen connections—now that’s a taller order.

(To introduce learners to the concept,’s data mapping activities are a good place to start.)

An excellent example of the power of maps comes from 19th century London, when Dr. John Snow disproved the belief that cholera was spread via “bad air” — by analyzing data on the location of infections and the location of water wells.

When he created his famous map during the cholera outbreak of 1854, Snow was already a practicing scientist and a medical doctor known for refining the dosage of anesthesia for surgery patients; he personally administered chloroform to Queen Victoria when she gave birth to the last two of her nine children.

John Snow

Snow was skeptical of the then-dominant miasma theory, which held that diseases such as cholera and the Black Death were caused by pollution, or “bad air.” Snow wasn’t sure what was causing the cholera outbreak, but by talking to local residents he discovered that most of the deaths had taken place near one particular pump, which drew water from a public well that had been dug only three feet from an old cesspit.

By plotting his data on a street map of London, Snow convincingly showed that outbreaks were clustered around this particular well. The map also underscored the idea that cholera was caused by bacteria in water rather than by bad air, and convinced authorities to close down the offending pump.

Image above: the original map by John Snow, showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854

Image to the right: Dr. John Snow

Posted in Topics: Geography, Human Body, Medicine, Statistics, The Nature of Science

No Comments

Maps in the Oval Office: the progress of geography education

Obama and map in Oval OfficeOn November 5, 2008, a few days after Barack Obama was elected president, Daniel Edelson wrote an open letter to the man who would soon occupy the White House.

Edelson, National Geographic’s Vice President of Education, delivered an eloquent plea, asking that the new administration “take up the cause of geographic education.”

“The U.S. has done a dismal job of educating our young people about the world and the complex interdependencies that link us to each other and to the natural resources and ecosystems that sustain us,” Edelson wrote, and then asked the president-elect to “make sure that learning about this interconnectedness and how to account for it in decision-making will be part of the education that every student in America receives.”

Two years later recently asked Dr. Edelson what has happened since he sent that letter in 2008. Does Edelson still “see the possibility that the administration will take up the cause of geographic education”?

Edelson replied, “The Administration has two strategies for reversing the narrowing of the curriculum that has resulted from No Child Left Behind. They are looking to increase resources for STEM [Science, Techonology, Engineering and Math] education and for what they are calling a ‘well-rounded curriculum’ which includes social studies, foreign languages, arts, and other subjects.

“Recognizing that geographic content and skills are taught in both science and social studies, they have encouraged us to think of both of these as sources of potential funding for geography education programs….our biggest challenge is that all education reform at the federal level is held up by political gridlock.”

Mapping the President

“With respect to President Obama himself,” says Edelson, “he, like his predecessors in the Oval Office, received a custom-made map case from the National Geographic Society shortly after his inauguration. I have been told by someone who was told by someone else who works in the White House, that the President makes good use of the maps and likes to show them to visitors.”

Read the full article, Maps in the Oval Office, at

See also:

Geography Awareness Week (Nov 14 - 20): Boy do we need it

Mapping data to change minds: a lesson from 1854

Where data meets design: spam maps, Science on a Sphere, and zombie survival charts

Image of President Obama in the Oval Office courtesy of the White House.

Posted in Topics: Earth and Space Science, Web site, Outdoor and Nature

No Comments

Getting teachers to stand on chairs & play kazoos

sound sandwichAt an unassuming table in an unremarkable exhibit hall, sandwich bags filled with tongue depressors and rubber bands were an unexpectedly hot item.

The conference was the recent 2010 annual meeting of the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) in Honolulu. The table showcased, the newly launched math and science portal for informal educators.

And the sandwich bags? They held ingredients–tongue depressors, rubber bands, and snippets of drinking straws– for a hands-on activity to make a primitive musical instrument called the Sound Sandwich.

The Sandwich had the jaded conference-goers tinkering, laughing, and filling the hall with bleats from the newly assembled contraptions. Many educators know that where Sound Sandwiches congregate, the inevitable orchestra erupts, sounding as if a tornado hit a truckload of kazoos.

And that was just in the exhibit hall. At the workshop, it was an even wilder scene. Participants chose from six hands-on activities–from the early math gem Starburst Graph to Magnus Glider, which lets you build a glider that uses the same physics as a curve ball. Educators clambered up onto chairs to try out their gliders.

“I think people at the conference were really excited about this new resource,” says Sherry Hsi, SMILE co-P.I. and Research Director at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science. “Especially the fact that our activities are vetted by educators and that you don’t have to register or subscribe to access whatever you need online.

“But they also were intrigued by the array of community tools on the site–like lists, comments, and earning badges for participation–that become available when they register.” Some of the site’s other new functions include

  • an amped-up Advanced Search, (you can search by age group, subject, materials, learning time, or even learning style preferences supported by the activity)
  • greatly enhanced video capabilities (watch them or upload your own)
  • expanded list-making functions, which let you make your lists of SMILE activities into resource hubs by adding non-SMILE resources or links to outside websites.

For a light-hearted look at conference-going, check out my schwag’s better than your schwag.

Posted in Topics: Web site

No Comments