Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Feeding Our Hungry Bird Friends after Hurricane Irene

What a wild week it's been here on the East Coast!

We should have known we were in for something big when we got up on Saturday morning. My eldest son, Evan (who notices these things, and who gets up early like his mother) called me very early on Saturday and said, "Go outside, quickly, and look to the East."  The sky was absolutely breath-taking (this photo doesn't even approach what we saw).  What's that old chestnut?

Red at night -- traveler's delight;
Red in the morning -- travelers, take warning.

We spent much of Saturday securing anything that my husband hadn't secured during the week, filling buckets of water, and scouring the Eastern Seaboard for D batteries (some of you can probably relate). Among the items that we put away were all of our bird feeders.

The birds, who sensed the weather was turning, came in droves to the space where the feeders used to be, and scoured the ground for scattered seeds, even into the beginning of the day on Sunday. I felt bad for them. When the weather started getting really wild, they found places to hide from the wind and rain.

We were extremely fortunate in our city, where we did not lose power (about 500,000 CT residents did, and about 400,000 still are awaiting power in their homes). We have debris to clean up, but did not sustain the damage that many folks along the coast, and even in neighboring towns, and even other parts of our city, did. 

We are studying Exploring Creation Through Zoology I: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day for part of our science curriculum this year. Part of Lesson 2 ("What Makes a Bird a Bird?") involves making a number of feeders for birds.  After we refilled and replaced our bird feeders (to the delight of our birdy friends), we enjoyed a cooking project yesterday, making our own "smart suet."

Smart Suet
  • Small zippered plastic storage bags (we used mini loaf pans instead)
  • Mesh bag (an old onion bag works well), or suet basket (we have two of these)
  • Stove
  • Large pot
  • Wooden spoon
  • Freezer
  • 2 c crunchy peanut butter
  • 2 c lard (not vegetable shortening)
  • 4 c rolled oats (the "old-fashioned" or long-cooking kind, not quick oats)
  • 4 c cornmeal
  • 2/3 c sugar
  • 1 c raisins
  • 1 c bird seed or other whole grains

  1. Melt lard and peanut butter in a large pot over low heat.
  2. Stir in oats, cornmeal, sugar, raisins and bird seed.
  3. Scoop mixture into small plastic zipper-type storage bags. Zip closed.
  4. Place bags in freezer until hard (overnight).
  5. When you want to feed the birds, remove suet from one of the bags, and place in mesh bag or suet basket.
 You can vary the recipe by adding different items to the mix. See which birds come to each flavor.
  • Orange-fruit Suet: Omit peanut butter, and double lard. Add dried blueberries (1 c) and 3 tsp orange flavoring or 1/4 c. of shredded, dried orange peel.
  • Very Berry Suet: Omit peanut butter, and double lard. Add 1 - 2 c. dried berries (combination of blueberries, raspberries and cherries) to the raisins in the mixture.
  • Bug Lovers Suet: Make as above, omitting raisins. Add 2 c dried mealworms (available in the bird seed aisle of Lowes or Home Depot) to the mixture. [Mealworms are a big hit with lots of birds, even ones who are normally seed eaters -- a very nutritious, high-fat treat for winter feeding].

One thing to note: if the weather is still very hot where you live, you might wait until fall to start suet feeding, as the mixture will melt if the temperature is very hot all day.

My friend, Barbara McCoy, gives some great pointers on Making Your Backyard a Wildlife Habitat.  Why not add some nature study and observations to your day? Donna Young has created some beautiful Nature Journal pages to download and place in your binder. See also the incredible assortment of nature study notebooking pages at the Notebooking Treasury:

Not sure where to begin? Begin at the beginning, with Outdoor Hour Challenge #1: Let's Get Started (like we did!).

Let us know how you began using nature study with your children or students. Use Mr. Linky (below) to post the link to your blog entry (not the whole page, but the specific entry) and make sure that you leave a comment, below, too!


As you go through your day today, please keep all those who have been affected by Hurricane Irene in your thoughts, hearts and prayers. And take time to thank God for the things you have right now. May God bless you richly!

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Pausing for Chemistry

What are chemicals? What is chemistry?
One of the fun parts about homeschool is that you can switch things up if the child (or the parent!) needs or wants to.

We just finished an exhausting math unit, and we all felt the need to take a different approach for the next few weeks. We know we have to revisit some parts of math -- that is a non-negotiable. We also want to include some work habits work this go-around. But the actual content? That is up to him. So I asked Malik what he wanted to study, and he made a list (he ranked them, himself):

  1. chemicals
  2. dinosaurs
  3. fossils
  4. ores
  5. birds
  6. building (construction)
  7. plants
We are already studying birds through our science curriculum (Exploring Creation Through Zoology I: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day), and can always use the Outdoor Hour Challenges to do some plant work (we actually had mapped out a study of the plants in the nightshade (potato) family, but just haven't started it, yet).

I was a science major in college, so I am always up for studying something new in one of the sciences. But I wanted a little guidance regarding how to introduce topics, so I did a quick Google search. I found this great article, "Making Chemistry Teaching Relevant", which is really written to address how high school and college chemistry classes are developed. In it, the authors stated that chemistry instruction shouldn't start with atoms, and work through matter, and so on (exactly the way I learned it, and exactly how I was going to teach it!). Rather, they contended that it should start with a real social, ecological or economic problem: What factors contribute to global warming? What's the best way to increase gas mileage in automobiles? What short- and long-term effects does the Exxon Valdez oil spill have on the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico? Etcetera...

We customize inexpensive, white 3-ring binders.
So tonight, we began by creating a science notebook (one of my son's favorite activities for homeschool -- creating his own subject notebooks). We printed out the basic science notebooking bundle from the Notebooking Treasury, punched holes and put all the pages (about 40) behind one divider in our notebook. Usually, we use Word to create a cover sheet and spine cover for our notebook, but Debra Reed's illustration for the Basic Science Bundle had beakers and flasks, and we both liked it, so we used that to cover our science notebook.  We labeled the first divider, "Chemistry," and put graph paper and lined paper behind two other dividers. We're ready to begin chemistry!

After reading the article about keeping science instruction relevant by focusing on inquiry, I asked my son what he wanted to know about chemicals, and what made him choose chemistry as his #1 topic of interest. His response was that he wanted to learn about acids and how the "burn through stuff." So I have to think a bit about what he really wants to know. Which of these topics might hit the mark?

What NOT to do with acids and plasma!
  1. types of burns (including chemical burns) and their treatment
  2. the use of acids in manufacturing
  3. digestion and indigestions -- acids and other chemicals that help us use our food
  4. pH: acids, bases and neutral chemicals and how to detect them
  5. chemical weapons and the history of chemical warfare
I guess I'll have to ask the child which he most had in mind, or if I've missed it altogether...

In the meantime, we have been reading through the basics of chemistry on Chem4Kids, which a ton of information, the basic vocabulary of chemistry, and little online quizzes after each section (Malik got a 10/10 on his "matter" quiz -- he was amped!). I learned that they've discovered two new states of matter since I was in college: plasma and Bose-Einstein condensates (when I declared this to my 24-year-old naturalist son, he chided me as being behind the times...). This is why I love homeschooling! You learn from your kids!

We started with a high-quality online site...
As we read, Malik takes "notes" on the journal page of his choosing (last night he chose a big illustration and a 2-sentence summary). I think his illustration gives a little window into what he wants to know about chemistry!

We will chronicle how we build this chemistry study on acids from scratch, for those of you who like to create curriculum. Stay tuned!


Did you know....

That there is a word that describes someone who teaches himself? You would call that person an autodidactic. Fans of the show, Criminal Minds, will be familiar with the genius character, Spencer Reed, who has several advanced degrees that he earned by teaching himself piles of stuff, just by reading books.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hummingbird (Sphinx) Moths

Snowberry Clearwing Sphinx Moth
Every year, I try to add more plants to attract birds and butterflies. Last year, we had an incredible assortment of butterflies in July and August. This year, we have been surprised by some new (for us) sightings, here in the middle of the city: monarch butterflies, yellow swallowtails, hummingbirds, white-crowned sparrows, an Eastern towhee, to name a few.

One day, during that amazing hot spell we had back in July, I was lounging by the (baby) pool with my little guy, and this small creature zoomed by my head. I had been trying to spot the hummingbird since my first sighting of it on the bee balm the week before, so I got just a little bit excited, and ran over to spy it, where it landed on the butterflybush.

To my surprise, I found a snowberry clearwing sphinx moth, instead! When I dashed into the house to grab my camera, it decided to leave. 

Not to worry. The butterflybush must have been very enticing, as the creature was back again the next afternoon. This time, it spent the entire afternoon going from bloom to bloom, dashing away for a moment, then returning for another drink. In fact, it dined so late into the evening, that it spent the night resting on the flower. [At first I thought it must be laying eggs, it was so still. But it didn't appear to be doing so. My naturalist son wondered if it was nearing the end of its life, and it was just winding down. But it DID end up disappearing sometime the next morning.]

Reading up on this moth, I found that its favorite foods were (surprise) butterflybush and honeysuckle, the latter of which we have growing along a fence very near where these photos were taken. I have never looked for the caterpillars there, but I suppose I could!

The Handbook of Nature Study has a long section (pp. 320-325) on the sphinx moths (the tomato hornworm is the larva, or caterpillar, of another kind of sphinx moth). There is also a great overview of its life cycle, with excellent photographs, in Birds-N-Gardens. Barbara McCoy wrote about a surprise encounter with a sphinx moth in her house on her Handbook of Nature Study blog entry, on the hummingbird or white-lined sphinx moth.

My son didn't get to see the moth, so we won't do a full study on it (unless, of course, it returns!). But I wanted to share the photographs and links, in case you are lucky enough to catch up with one, when your child is in tow.


Bee Balm (Monarda)
Here are the plants we have put in to attract wildlife:

  • Black-eyed Susan (all kinds -- annual, perennial, and one with green 'eyes')
  • Butterfly Bush (this one is 'Black Knight' -- much nicer than the ordinary one, which we also have)
  • Ruby Spice Summersweet
  • Ox-eye daisies
  • Sedge (for caterpillars)
  • Radishes and other kole crops (for the cabbage whites)
  • Bee balm
  • Coneflower: lots of varieties -- regular purple, double purple, rose, yellow (called 'Macaroni and Cheese'!), a green one (forget the name)
  • Bleeding heart (white with green leaves, pink with yellow leaves)
  • Herbs: thyme, oregano, peppermint, dill, parsley -- the swallowtails like the dills and parsley
  • Winterberry
  • Mulberry -- the robins and their first batch of babies stripped one clean in days!
  • Petunias
  • Coreopsis (threadleaf, the standard, and a midget one that I can't recall the name of...)
  • Roses (the shrub kind grow best for us)
  • Daylilies
  • Verbena -- the bees love it
  • Salvia -- ditto here
Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly

The birds also love to sit on the edge of the dog's water dish (when he's not outside, of course), and drink and bathe. We notice that our brush pile and compost area also attract lots of critters (some of the furry kind, like possums, raccoons and skunks, too). I'm thinking of putting in a little 6-foot pond in the corner. My husband has given me the blessing, provided I finish my office/homeschool room project first. Fair enough.

The Handbook of Nature Study has some ideas to try, to attract more birds to your yard.

I'm sure there's more. I have to get out and cut back the bee balm so it will flower again. 

Peace --

Little Brown Birds: Sparrows and Friends

We try very hard to follow along with the Outdoor Hour Challenges on Handbook of Nature Study. But we either 1) have short attention spans or 2) want to know about so many things that it's easy for us to go off on a "bird walk." But, oh! What a bird walk we can go on!

I wanted to capture our just-finished study of the little brown birds that frequent our backyard here in Connecticut. [Did you know that birders refer to all those brownish, teeny birds that evade identification as "LBJs" -- "Little Brown Jobs?"] We have a little Carolina Wren that thinks he's the boss of the back yard every spring, sitting on the porch railing and singing into the kitchen door. We were serenaded by the "Poor John Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!" of the Whitethroat Sparrow all spring, as well as the Song Sparrow. We also delighted to see Dark-eyed Juncos and White-crowned Sparrows as they passed through on the way to points north in April. And, of course, the ubiquitous (and extremely numerous) House (English) Sparrows that squabble in line waiting for their turn (impatiently) at the feeder.

Learning How to Observe: Outdoor Hour Challenge #1 - Getting Started.
My little guy has a hard time sitting still for nature study -- "observation" requires a lot of patience, silence and stillness, none of which my son has in surplus! So we began at the beginning with nature study. We took a stroll around the yard, noticing what was blooming, what had fruit, which vegetable seeds were germinating. We took note of the birds at the feeder. That's it. No writing, no overdoing it. We just spent time being together, and looking at things.

Read-alouds: Burgess Bird Book for Children
  • "Jenny Wren Arrives" (House Wren) -- not a sparrow, but the first story in the book
  • "The Old Orchard Bully" (House Sparrow)
  • "Jenny Has a Good Word for Some Sparrows" (Song Sparrow, Whitethroat Sparrow, Fox Sparrow)
  • "Chippy, Sweetvoice and Dotty" (Chipping Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow)
We discovered the Burgess Animal Book for Children last spring, when we began the Ambleside curriculum. When we decided to adopt Exploring Creation through Zoology I: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day for our science curriculum, we also decided to switch to the Burgess Bird Book for Children for our read-aloud. While this book is part of Ambleside's Year 1 booklist, it fits our focus on flying creatures, and I like the emphasis on taxonomy. Satori Smiles has a Burgess Bird Book for Children Companion that has links to useful websites and resources for each chapter.  We especially liked the links to audio files, and spent a lot of time listening to bird songs. Even Papi got good at identifying some of our little brown bird friends!

Notebooking: The Notebooking Treasury and others

Notebooking is an important part of our nature study. Here are my objectives for science and nature study, which I copied straight from our State's Science Curriculum Standards:

B INQ.1    Make observations and ask questions about objects, organisms and the environment.
B INQ.2    Seek relevant information in books, magazines and electronic media.
B INQ.3    Design and conduct simple investigations.
B INQ.4    Employ simple equipment and measuring tools to gather data and extend the senses.
B INQ.5    Use data to construct reasonable explanations.
B INQ.6    Analyze, critique and communicate investigations using words, graphs and drawings.
B INQ.7    Read and write a variety of science-related fiction and nonfiction texts.
B INQ.8    Search the Web and locate relevant science information.
B INQ.9    Use measurement tools and standard units  to describe objects and materials. 

B INQ.10  Use mathematics to analyze, interpret and present data.

I highlighted the inquiry standards that would be directly addressed by journaling or notebooking as a part of nature study. Powerful tool for kids!

If you study the Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock, you will learn that she didn't much subscribe to children spending great amounts of time studying creatures which they only see in books. On the contrary, she focused on the child studying whatever living things were readily available for study, be they barnyard chickens, pigeons roosting on the edge of a store roof, or a tree seedling growing in a crack of the sidewalk. In keeping with this philosophy, we researched other sparrows that might be seen in our vicinity, then selected ones that we had already observed, for further study. Our Birdstack list of sparrows and their friends is visible in the sidebar. 
    I purchased two "downloadables" subscriptions this year: The Notebooking Treasury, and Enchanted Learning. For our sparrow studies, I printed out pages for the Carolina Wren, English (House) Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Whitethroat Sparrow, and White-crowned Sparrow, from the Nature Study: Birds (Complete Set) bundle. I also used some generic nature study notebooking pages from a Handbook of Nature Study reader, and the Song Sparrow page from the Feeder Birds Coloring Book, developed by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. This last resource includes great questions on each coloring book page, which correspond very nicely to the kind of nature study prompts Ms. Comstock uses in her nature study lessons, in the Handbook of Nature Study.

    Do check out the Notebooking Treasury. Use discount code = discount5 to save $5 on your $10+ purchase at 

    There are so many notebooking pages available, even within one set. We always have one page which include the following information: common and scientific name, specific details, a range map, a small illustration to color, and about a quarter page for writing. During read-aloud, he colors the illustration (using his field guide as a guide), and he uses the "specific details" section to record any details he learned about the bird from the reading (this is just the "were you listening?" section of the notebooking page). He looks up the scientific name (he loves scientific names), and I help him to outline the range map, which he colors according to the key (winter, breeding, summer ranges), then he notes when we might see that bird here in Connecticut.

    I have tried a number of different ways to encourage stamina in non-fiction writing with my son, and have discovered that a prompt helps him to write more deeply about a subject. So, for independent work after the reading, I have him think about, and write a response to, a prompt. Sometimes, these are questions from the Handbook, sometimes they go along with our zoology reading. Other times, they are ones that I make up. But I always try to focus on a bigger idea. Here are the prompts we used in our sparrow study:

    • Observe a bird flying. Name the bird, and describe its flight.
    • What are some problems associated with introduced species?
    • How do birds sing? Why do they sing? What are some functions of bird songs and calls?
    • Why are so many birds brown? Think of at least three reasons why being brown is beneficial to a bird.
    My little guy loves to draw, but is not very keen on coloring someone else's drawings. I DO want him to examine the field guides and try to color at least one diagram of each bird we study, because it DOES help him to identify the bird in the field later. So we've devised an agreement that works well for us. If your child is a reluctant colorer, maybe it will work for you, too.

    1. Many notebooking pages come with a full-page illustration, that you can use as the cover for a project. I would have loved to color one of these as a child (and still do!). But Malik does not -- he literally groans to see so much empty space. So I limit our coloring to drawings that are 1/2-page or less.
    2. He loves coloring with someone. And, I figure, one reason we homeschool is to spend time together. So we grab colored pencils and color together, when the illustration is a larger one.
    3. If he is going to color independently, we consult our field guide first, and discuss field markings. We are learning about these in our zoology studies, so it's a curriculum connection for us. Also, if he gets the important field markings in the drawing, I don't care about the other parts (we can color those in together, later, or not).
    I don't know about you, but not all parts of homeschooling go smoothly for us -- notebooking has been one area where we have had to do some work. But we find this procedure (all of what we described above) to work very well for us in nature study. We are all happy now!

    Background Lesson Material: Handbook of Nature Study (pp. 83-91)
    Whenever we happen upon a new creature, through our outdoor time or our Burgess Bird Book for Children readings, our next stop is always the Handbook of Nature Study. The Handbook is for you, the teacher. It contains important information about so many things you might want to study in nature, poems, and questions to guide your interactions with your child.  The link, above, leads to one of several online, downloadable e-texts, but I borrowed it from the library, and quickly bought my own copy. It will cost you about $25 for a used copy, but you will get your money's worth out of having your own copy.

    There is a big section on sparrows in the Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock, pages 83-91. There are lessons on the Chipping Sparrow, English (House) Sparrow, Field Sparrow and Song Sparrow, but there is also a poem about the Whitethroat Sparrow.

    Poetry: Handbook of Nature Study (pp. 83, 89, 91)

    I was never a big poetry lover, and it is still one of those things that, if I don't intentionally include it in my planning, I would probably overlook entirely. It just does not come into my mind. However, I know, as a teacher, that poetry is powerful, because the poet must use just the right words to convey a strong image and sentiment, in a small amount of space -- good stuff for helping kids comprehend their reading and for teaching them powerful word choice.

    I also know that kids sometimes like things that their parents do not! My son loves poetry, and makes up his own songs, poems and raps constantly. If I omitted poetry, simply because I don't care for it, then that would not honor his preferences. Fortunately, the Handbook of Nature Study sprinkles poetry throughout every lesson. When we come upon one of these poems in our HNS readings, he records the title on his notebooking page, as a record, and give him a chance to respond in whatever way he chooses. Sometimes, he surprises me!  In the example in the photo, he was imagining a conversation between a Song Sparrow, who wouldn't stop singing, and the stump upon which the bird was perched. I think it's clever...

    Our Sparrow Poems:
    These poems were based on the songs that the birds sang, and we are also studying bird song as a field identifier in our zoology studies.

    Lesson Ideas and Links: Handbook of Nature Study (website)

    Barbara McCoy, a veteran homeschool mom and nature student, almost always has at least one nature study on whatever nature topic or critter you might want to study. The only time I can't find something is if it's a really East Coast thing, as Barb is a West Coast resident, but this happens so rarely, that I am surprised by it. This is always the second place I go for information, after the book, above.

    For our sparrow study, we followed the links and ideas in Outdoor Hour Challenge: Brown Birds #5, which compares the House Sparrow, House Wren and Mourning Dove, three of our common feeder birds. It's so nice when someone else shares their hard work. I just love homeschoolers.

    Other Activities We Did in This Study:
    • Make a Bird List -- We took this opportunity to formalize our bird list, by beginning with "Sparrows and Friends." Birdstack is an excellent online bird list tool, that lets you enter detailed observations about birds that you see, and allows you to sort by many different fields (we sorted our list by bird family, which is how we got our Sparrows list, although you can sort and make lists by date, location, color... ). A cool thing is that your entries are added to a grand repository of all the users observations, so you can see your entry pop up on the list live, along with everyone else who is currently entering observations. Then, you can export any list you want as a widget for your blog or website, like we did. Our list is in the sidebar, to the right.
    • Listen to Bird Songs -- My son absolutely loved the audio files of bird songs at, and would beg to finish his other studies so he could pore over the songs and calls of all the birds he could name. Not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon (although it drove our dog and cats nuts!).
    Share! The Outdoor Hour Blog Carnival
    When we finish a study and blog about it, I post a link to my blog in the Outdoor Hour Blog Carnival -- a great way to share with other bloggers and homeschoolers who are blogging on the same topic. Once a month, Barb highlights entries on her Handbook of Nature Study blog -- a good way to link up with others and increase traffic to your blog. The widget for the Carnival is on the sidebar.

    I am creating a Live Binder with all my bird study resources and links. Check it out!

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    New Page: Our Third Grade Homeschool Curriculum

    A New Year Begins!

    We have almost begun all our subjects for the 2011-12 school year. We decided to begin a new subject each week, starting after the first week of July (which I spent scheduling our courses and gathering materials).

    Over the next few days, I will be adding additional pages to my blog -- you will see them on the tabs at the top of the page. So come back often!

    (BTW... I think I've resolved my technical difficulties with the (known) issue regarding the sidebar widgets... PHEW!)...

    Peace to all!

    Monday, August 1, 2011

    Experiments in Flight: Lift, Thrust and Drag

    Sunflowers and pollinators (Kim Bennett (c) 2010)
    I LOVE summer weather!. Our recent hot spell was a little TOO summery for most members of this family, however. Most of our outdoor activities were limited to the early morning or after dinner hours, unless we were (all!) in the kiddy pool!

    Here in Connecticut, our weather broke a lot of records, topping off the week with one day where it reached 103 degrees at Bradley Airport.

    Kim Bennett (c) 2010

    A side benefit of all that heat is that the vegetable garden has gone bananas! The snap peas, onions and most of the potatoes finished up, and the tomatoes grew like they were jungle vines. Malik ate most of the peas before they got to the house. The cherry tomatoes didn't make it to the house after I picked them, either (they are so delicious!) -- can't wait for the big ones to ripen!  Eggplants are on the way, too, as are the first of the hot peppers (a special request from my husband, this year)...

    Bee balm attracts hummingbirds (Kim Bennett (c) 2010)
    The warm weather did bring the ruby-throated hummingbird to our yard. We can't quite catch him on film, but he's been seen frequenting the bee balm, so we put out the hummingbird feeder in hopes of getting him to sit still for a photo.What a lot of noise from a tiny, little bird!

    Here is a great video clip (not mine) of some RTHs having a conversation at the feeder.

    We are continuing the bird study from our June newsletter, by studying the blue jay and its cousin, the crow (see Outdoor Hour Challenge #2, Jays and Bluebirds). We have also begun our Zoology unit with a study on wings and flight, from Apologia Science (Zoology I: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day). [I am a science teacher, by training, and I absolutely love the Apologia text books, as does my son -- high quality, very deep in science content, and full of hand-on activities.] As part of our first week of lessons, we conducted an experiment to study the effects of wing size and shape on gliding distance.

    First, we read our chapter on drag, thrust and lift, and learned about the special shape of a bird wing (called an airfoil), and why the shape of a bird's wing (or a plane's wing, modeled after a bird's wing) allows a heavier than air object (like a bird) to seemingly float above the air. [Boeing has a great page on "How Do Things Fly?" which is a great, kid-friendly reference on wings and flight.]  Then we completed a Scientific Experiment Planning Sheet, which followed the scientific method, and listed our materials and procedures. While we completed it, we decided which was our independent variable (wing shape) and which was our dependent variable (gliding distance). We formulated a hypothesis that wings that were long and narrow would allow the glider to glide farther than wings that were short and wide.

    Our flight experiment (Kim Bennett (c) 2011)
    Next, we designed two simple gliders from common household objects. These gliders were identical in every way, except for the shape of their wings (we learned that we had to make sure that ONLY our independent variable varied, or we couldn't come to a conclusion about our hypothesis).

    We used an old cereal box to create the wings and tail fins, drinking straws, and two identical blobs of homemade playdough for nose weight. We taped the wings to the straw using adhesive tape.  The only difference between the two planes was the shape of the wings.

    Ready, fire! (Kim Bennett (c) 2011)
    Then, we needed to find a good place to launch our gliders. We knew that gliders depend on height for distance, so Malik suggested that we climb to the back porch on the second floor. You can see our gazebo and hedges in the back yard.

    It was important that we launched our gliders many times, to account for strange things that might happen (such as one of the cats chasing one of the gliders, a glider getting caught in the hedge, the blob of playdough falling off a nose piece, and other things that really happened). It was also important that the gliders were both thrown the same way, each time, so Malik was in charge of launching, and Mom was in charge of fetching (it was like being on a two-story Stair Master...).  We had a tape measure, but decided to pace off the flight path of each throw, using Mom's feet as a non-standard measuring tool. Mom called out distances, and Malik recorded on his data sheet.

    Data tables (Kim Bennett (c) 2011)
    After we had thrown the gliders ten times, each, we calculated an average distance for each glider. We accepted our alternative hypothesis that long, narrow wings let an object glide farther (the null hypothesis would be that wing shape had no effect on gliding distance).

    We lost one nose piece on the last glide, but the wings were good for another go-around on another day. How might we change our experiment to learn more about lift, thrust and drag?

    Notes from the science teacher:
    1. Conducting a simple experiment is powerful science, for all ages! Even small children can be taught to follow up a question ("Mommy, what will happen if I mix red and blue paint?") with, "How can I find out?" and "What do I think will happen?" 
    2. Little kids can use pictures to draw what they think will happen, and what actually happened. As children get to be 1st and 2nd graders, tally marks can be used to take count data. Third graders and older should learn how to create a simple data table (see the photo, above, for our non-fancy, two-column data table).
    3. Introduce the steps and words of the scientific method early on: hypothesis, materials, procedures, data, analysis, conclusion, dependent and independent variable. Don't teach substitute words if the real ones will do!
    4. Always tie the experiment back to the concept you are teaching. So many high school students remember the experiment where they burned something, blew something up, or added water, but they don't remember what the experiment taught them!

      For more information on conducting experiments with children, see the following resources:

      How to Conduct Science Experiments
      Kids' Science Experiments
      Fun Science Experiments for Preschoolers

      For more experiments on flight, see these links:

      Paper Helicopters and  the Methods of Science
      Paper Airplane Experiment for Kids

      There is also a Web Quest on flight which you might enjoy.

      We live minutes from the New England Air Museum, which will be our next field trip (after successful completion of our bird study and flight lessons). We'll post photos!

      We had a lot of fun together. It was educational, outdoors and exercised our bodies!

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