Category Archives: curiosity

Quick Read: How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen L. Petranek

“Studying whether there’s life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there’s something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. That’s something that is almost part of being human, and I’m certain that will continue.” Sally Ride

“You need to live in a dome initially, but over time you could terraform Mars to look like Earth and eventually walk around outside without anything on… So it’s a fixer-upper of a planet. I would like to die on Mars, just not on impact.” Elon Musk


Following on the heels of the immensely popular film The Martian, our STEM Institute faculty is currently in planning mode for a new adventure — launching a STEM program at Illinois State University for a cohort of young Golden Apple Scholars, the teacher preparation arm of Golden Apple. The theme for the week of activities is “Mission to Mars,” and once the Scholars have experienced and reflected on the Mars mission-themed activities for themselves, they will be rolling out two summer camps for students in the area, one focused on students in 3rd through 5th grades and the other for students in 6th through 8th grade.

We are encouraging those students to apply by asking them to imagine themselves as part of the team of scientists and engineers that will launch the first successful manned mission to Mars in 2026. We tell them

“At the Mission to Mars ISU STEM camp, you will explore ways to get to Mars, land on Mars, live on Mars, study Mars, and return safely to earth.

During the camp you will get to…
• Launch rockets.
• Create a means to successfully land humans on Mars.
• Explore the planet, testing and analyzing the rocks, soil and atmosphere.
• Develop ways to grow food on Mars.
• Search for evidence of water on the Martian surface.
• Construct a settlement for you and your fellow space pioneers.
• Develop a way to safely return to and land on planet earth.

At the Mission to Mars ISU STEM camp, you will do all of these things so that you are ready to play a historic role in Man’s first visit to the mysterious red planet we call Mars.”

Imagine yourself as a 5th through 8th grader. Wouldn’t the prospect of participating in a Mission to Mars summer camp thrill you?

If you want to consider creating a similar experience for your own students, I have a quick read for you.

How We'll Live on Mars

How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen L. Petranek is a 2015 TED Original publication. Weighing in at 77 succinct, information-packed pages, including 22 gorgeous color photographs of the surface of Mars, the rocketry, and the exploration devices we’ve used to explore it thus far, it’s a little gem of a book for launching your own planning for a unit about getting to and living on Mars. Petranek begins with a brief history of the idea of man traveling to and colonizing Mars, acquaints the reader with the private space race currently going on involving, among others, Elon Musk, the creator of the Tesla car, details the challenges rockets pose for engineers, and analyzes the economics of a mission to Mars, before delving into the prospect of actually living on the red planet. What will we do about water? How will we breathe? How will we feed ourselves? What clothing and shelter can we devise to protect ourselves in such a hostile environment?

Clearly we will have to change something if we are to view Mars as a long-term habitation for human beings. Chapter 7 “Making Mars into Earth’s Image” goes into various ways humanity might set about terraforming Mars to create a suitable home for humans. Also called planetary engineering or planetary ecosynthesis, terraforming was initially proposed by Carl Sagan in the journal Science in 1961. Students can learn a lot of science exploring the various scenarios scientists and engineers have proposed. But what if rather than changing Mars to be more like earth, we changed ourselves to be better able to survive on Mars? Petranek explores this intriguing possibility that could be achieved via gene manipulation.

Chapter 8 explores the ubiquitous WIIFM question or “What’s in it for me?” What’s in it for humanity to invest in establishing human settlements on Mars? The most obvious answer is that Mars could serve as Plan B for a species that has ruined its own home planet, providing an escape hatch should earth become less and less habitable. At least some of humanity would survive. But as it turns out, there’s a veritable fortune to be made in colonizing Mars and exploiting the natural resources contained in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, which is much easier to access from Mars than it is from Earth.

On Our Way!

On Our Way!

The final chapter returns to a historical perspective, comparing the exploration and settlement of Mars to the most obvious analogy from Western history, that great period of exploration which opened the New World to European explorers and settlers. What an intriguing opportunity to connect social studies and science in any Mission to Mars unit you would design.

As our work on the Mission to Mars curriculum evolves, we’ll be sharing it on our Partners in Inquiry website. In the meantime, this quick read should set your own thinking in motion toward developing a Mission to Mars unit for the students you teach.

And here’s something for you to dream on and to spark your students’ imaginations and creativity. A NASA scientist recently announced that we could transport humans to Mars in a month. A month! And be sure to check out the images and videos of Mars that NASA has made available, paid for by our tax dollars and worth every penny!

Until next time …

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


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Filed under book review, creativity, curiosity, engineering, innovation, Mars, teacher resources, TED, The Martian, Uncategorized

Golden Apple STEM Institute TED Playlist: 10 Inspiring Talks for Inquiry-Based STEM Teachers

If you’re a follower of TED talks you are probably already familiar with TED playlists, TED or curator created groupings of TED talks around a particular theme. You know the power of these collections to spark your thinking about a  topic. If you aren’t familiar with TED, the following short videos will provide you with an introduction to these inspiring and entertaining talks on the cutting edge of human understanding.

By the way, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, but the talks are much more wide-ranging that those three words suggest, delving into science, mathematics, education, and numerous other fields. The talks themselves are given at an annual TED conference. This year’s TED conference was in Vancouver and just just concluded. Attending the conference is by application and invitation and costs $8,500, not including airfare, lodging and food. In the coming weeks, the talks from that conference will be posted online and are free. Cities around the world have created their own TED conferences called TEDex, and those talks are posted on the TED site as well.

STEM Institute has assembled the following ten TED talks that capture the spirit of inquiry, curiosity, and fun that are at the heart of our program. They suggest what we hope students will experience in their STEM classes.


Why we need the explorers

This talk could be subtitled “on the importance of curiosity driven science.”


Three rules to spark learning

A high school chemistry teacher shares insights he learned from his surgeon that changed how he practices the craft of teaching.


Hey science teachers – make it fun

Why textbook driven instruction isn’t the way to go — be playful and use storytelling to awaken your students’ interest.


Science is for everyone, kids included

This talk is on the importance of play; science as a way of being; children’s questioning; and experiments as play.


Math class needs a makeover

Although this talk is about high school math, the takeaways apply equally to elementary math and science – the importance to students of formulating the problems; here’s some great teaching advice to lead students to patient problem solving.


Hands-on science with squishy circuits

Make some homemade play dough for little kids to build circuits.


Kids can teach themselves

Sugata Mitra explores how you can indeed feel confident in turning over more responsibility for learning to kids themselves.


How I harnessed the wind

Inspiring talk by a young man from Malawi that could lead students to explore the maker movement, engineering, and the power of young people to make real world contributions; a good hook for a unit on energy or for Earth Day.


Biomimicry’s surprising lessons from nature’s engineers

Why immerse students in nature? This talk explores the intersection between science, design, and engineering.“Learning about the natural world is one thing; learning from the natural world, that’s the profound switch.”


Do schools kill creativity?

Saving the best for last, I close with the most popular TED talk of all time. It gets to the heart of what is wrong with most schools, the deadening impact they have on students’ creativity, creativity that is essential to success in the STEM fields.


Enjoy! And if you have a favorite TED talk or comments about any of these, please share in a comment below.


You can learn more about STEM Institute here.

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Filed under children as engineers, children as scientists, creativity, curiosity, engineering, innovation, inquiry science, professional development, resources, science teaching, scientist, STEM education, teacher resources, TED, Uncategorized

Crosscutting Concepts

Here is a list:

Patterns: Observed patterns of forms and events guide organization and classification, and they prompt questions about relationships and the factors that influence them.
Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation. Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. A major activity of science is investigating and explaining causal relationships and the mechanisms by which they are mediated. Such mechanisms can then be tested across given contexts and used to predict and explain events in new contexts.
Scale, proportion, and quantity: In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, time, and energy and to recognize how changes in scale, proportion, or quantity affect a system’s structure or performance.
Systems and system models: Defining the system under study—specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system—provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering.
Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation. Tracking fluxes of energy and matter into, out of, and within systems helps one understand the systems’ possibilities and limitations.
Structure and function: The way in which an object or living thing is shaped and its substructure determine many of its properties and functions.
Stability and change: For natural and built systems alike, conditions of stability and determinants of rates of change or evolution of a system are critical elements of study.

Structure and Function

Structure and Function

By now, you are likely familiar with this domain of the Next Generation Science Standards, the seven Crosscutting Concepts, ideas that bridge all the science content areas, from amoebae to supernovae.

Here is another list:

The Family Is All There Is
by Pattiann Rogers

“Think of those old, enduring connections 
found in all flesh–the channeling 
wires and threads, vacuoles, granules, plasma and pods, purple veins, ascending 
boles and coral sapwood (sugar-
and light-filled), those common ligaments, filaments, fibers and canals.

Seminal to all kin also is the open 
mouth–in heart urchin and octopus belly, in catfish, moonfish, forest lily, and rugosa rose, in thirsty magpie, wailing cat cub, barker, yodeler, yawning coati.

And there is a pervasive clasping 
common to the clan–the hard nails
 of lichen and ivy sucker 
on the church wall, the bean tendril 
and the taproot, the bolted coupling 
of crane flies, the hold of the shearwater
 on its morning squid, guanine 
to cytosine, adenine to thymine,
 fingers around fingers, the grip
 of the voice on presence, the grasp 
of the self on place.

Remember the same hair on pygmy
 dormouse and yellow-necked caterpillar, 
covering red baboon, thistle seed 
and willow herb? Remember the similar
snorts of warthog, walrus, male moose
 and sumo wrestler? Remember the familiar 
whinny and shimmer found in river birches, bay mares and bullfrog tadpoles, in children playing at shoulder tag on a summer lawn?

The family–weavers, reachers, winders 
and connivers, pumpers, runners, air and bubble riders, rock-sitters, wave-gliders, wire-wobblers, soothers, flagellators—all
 brothers, sisters, all there is.

Name something else.”

Lichen and Moss

“the hard nails of lichen” and moss

If you are not familiar with the poetry of Pattiann Rogers, you’re in for a treat. Here is a poet who has beautifully captured the notion of Crosscutting Concepts; they run throughout “The Family Is All There Is.” The patterns of “open mouth” and “clasping.” The structure and function of “the channeling wires and threads.” The system of kinship among all living things … “the family is all there is.

Arguably the theme of this poem is “all things are connected.” And isn’t that, in essence, the great understanding that the NGSS Crosscutting Concepts lead us to? Don’t they guide and promote our ability to see those connections, those commonalities? And doesn’t Pattiann Rogers do the same in that poem, in the grand tradition of the Metaphysical Poets.

So, in case you haven’t crossed her path before, let me briefly introduce her to you and then to what I think is one of the major implications of her work for educators and specifically for those of us in STEM education.

A brief biography: Pattiann Rogers was born in 1940 in Joplin, Missouri. Her mother was a schoolteacher. Pattiann went to the University of Missouri where she met her future husband, John Robert Rogers, in French class. She completed her degree in English literature, and the couple married in 1960. While John completed his PhD in Physics, Pattiann worked as a kindergarten teacher. She and her husband had two sons, John and Arthur, and by the birth of their second son were living in Houston, where her husband did geophysical research for Texaco while pursuing postgraduate training in geology at the University of Houston. Meanwhile, Rogers devoted herself, during their early years, to raising the couple’s two sons, eventually enrolling in a graduate program in creative writing at the University of Houston and earning her MA in 1981, the same year she published her first book of poems, The Expectations of Light, which received an award from the Texas Institute of Letters and prompted critic Peter Stitt to comment on her “sophisticated incorporation of modern scientific thinking into poetry.”

Rogers’s eldest son John earned a PhD in physics at MIT and is now celebrated as one of the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana’s “star professors” and one of the leading material scientists in the world. In fall 2016, he will be leaving the U of I to become the Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Medicine in the Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology, Northwestern’s newly endowed center for biointegrated electronics. He and his research team have developed a wireless antibiotic implant that dissolves after a patient’s treatment is complete. In 2013 the group developed a tattoo-like sensor that can measure brain waves, heartbeats, and the contraction of skeletal muscles.
That was a mouthful.

But I wanted to include it to suggest the way in which the arts and sciences can marry, can feed each other (read inspire), and basically operate as one family within the human intellect. Far from being the two separate cultures C. P. Snow described in 1959, they are, ideally and quite appropriately, helpmeets. Snow believed that Britain, his country, had privileged the humanities over the scientific and engineering education he felt necessary to manage the modern scientific world. We certainly don’t do that in today’s United States. In fact, we don’t seem to privilege either the Arts or the Sciences, if the time spent on those disciplines in our schools and if what is tested, i.e., valued, are any indication. But perhaps, united, both science and art stand a better chance.

Let’s take an excerpt from another of Pattiann Rogers’s poems, “How the Body in Motion Affects the Mind.”

“We are bound by the theorem of sockets and joints,
Totally united with contraction and release.
The idea of truth cannot be separated
From the action of the hand releasing
The stone at the precise apogee of the arm’s motion
Or from the spine’s flexibility easing
Through a wooden fence. The notion
Of the vast will not ignore the arm swinging
In motion from the shoulder or the fingers
Clasped together in alternation.

And when the infant, for the first time,
Turns his body over completely, think
What an enormous revelation in the brain
Must be forced, at that moment, to right itself.”

I can’t help but notice in this poem what we’ve come to call scientific thinking, the Wheel of Inquiry. When you reflect on the NGSS, specifically the eight Scientific and Engineering Practices, the observation, the awakened curiosity, the questioning, the developing of models, all come into play in the work of this poet and arguably that of artists everywhere. Artists too are observers, problem solvers, investigators of discrepant events, and communicators of what they learn from their explorations of the world.

It’s easy to see why Rogers “is known for verse that both embraces the natural world and unfolds the complexities of science.” Roald Hoffmann, Nobel laureate in chemistry said, “I’ve never seen nature observed as closely, nor transfigured by human language, as in Pattiann Rogers’ poetry.” If you want to further explore the work of Pattiann Rogers, a good place to start is to dive into Song of the World Becoming: New and Collected Poems 1891-2001(2001). Her poems are an education in ecology, astronomy, biology, and in the vocabulary of science and scientific observation. I also highly recommend her reflections on her writing in The Dream of the Marsh Hen: Writing as Reciprocal Creation (1999). Both books are seedbeds from which teachers can generate arts based and science connected activities for their students, by activating students’ curiosity and imagination. And to delve into the works of other poets who have taken science and math as their own fertile field, have a look at Verse and Universe: Poems about Science and Mathematics (1998). Pattiann Rogers is included in this anthology, and so is chemist Roald Hoffmann.

Image: J Brew via Flickr

Image: J Brew via Flickr (Creative Commons)

So just maybe the ultimate Crosscutting Concept is that science and art are fundamentally related, the thought processes of scientists and artists more akin than surface appearances would suggest. Part of our task then as teachers and as a society is to erase the artificial divide between the two and the notion that we have two competing cultures, as if there could possibly be a competition at that most fundamental of levels — the working of the human mind. And that would logically lead us to very thoughtfully tuck a capital A into STEM right after the E.

As Pattiann Rogers states in The Dream of the Marsh Wren. “It has seemed to me impossible to live in our world, to survive — the split, the rending being too great — if a union could not be found and created within these two ways of knowing, the artistic and the scientific, both so essential and so present in our lives. I believe that the union is there and only lacks expression to bring it into reality.”

~ Penny

To learn more about STEM Institute, click here.

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Filed under arts, book review, creativity, curiosity, NGSS, Pattiann Rogers, poetry, STEAM, STEM education, teacher resources, The Scientific Method, Uncategorized, Wheel of Inquiry

The Ripple Effect … and Saving Whooping Cranes

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to make many ripples” Mother Teresa

Some years ago, I joined the International Crane Foundation, making an annual contribution to the foundation to support their work in researching, conserving, and educating about crane species all over the world. Four times a year, they publish The ICF Bugle to update their members about the progress being made in restoring various crane populations and habitats. I have a tendency to let these newsletters gather on my dining room table, but today I grabbed a couple to read on the train and toss.

The May 2014 issue featured a letter from ICF President Rick Beilfuss who focused on the future of whooping cranes, and that’s when it hit me. Until today, I had forgotten how I came to care about cranes in the first place. An image flashed in my mind, and I remembered when I was in 4th or 5th grade in the 50s reading stories in My Weekly Reader about the near extinction of the whooping crane. There were around a dozen left alive at that point, and there was a strong likelihood that the species would vanish. I knew about extinction because I had learned about the beautiful, once abundant but now extinct, passenger pigeon.

While I had never seen a whooping crane and My Weekly Reader wasn’t even in color back then, something about the irrevocability of extinction and the magnificence of these birds resonated with me all those years ago. I soon went on to other concerns, growing up, becoming a teacher, one cause and another, until I heard about ICF, maybe stumbled across the organization on the Internet, and decided to join. Today I realized the connection between those two events separated by more decades than I care to name. I know that something I learned about the natural world as a child caused me to make a decision as an adult – a decision for the natural world, for conservation, for research, for education, and for my own pleasure.

Running Whooping Cranes

Running Whooping Cranes

And today I also learned, courtesy of Google, that I am not alone.

To verify my memory, I googled “my weekly reader whooping crane” and found the following comment to a blog post on the demise of My Weekly Reader.

Carol on 
August 23, 2012 at 10:18 am wrote: Two things about the Weekly Reader: 1) They arrived all rolled up in brown paper and had to be separated; I, as a marvelous student, had the “honor” of being chosen to separate them! 
2) In about 1950, I read in My Weekly Reader that the population of Whooping Cranes was down to around 39. So when I retired in 1996, I took a boat trip out of Rockport, TX to see the Whooping Cranes, which by then were making a nice comeback. Last week I went to the International Crane Foundation, in Baraboo, WI, where I saw 2 more Whooping Cranes.

So Carol had read a similar article in the children’s newspaper, and it stayed with her too.

But Carol and I aren’t alone. It turns out that Ruth Zachary, commenting on a photo posted by Bill Bouton on Flickr, had this to say: “Oh my! These are the birds which started my love affair when I was a child–I read about them in My Weekly Reader…”

Something sparked in Carol’s imagination, and in Ruth’s, and in mine during our elementary school years that has stayed with us our entire lives. As it did as well with Chester McConnell.

Now in his late 70s, McConnell first read about whooping cranes when he was in 5th grade … and also in My Weekly Reader. He went on to become a wildlife biologist in Tennessee. He was quoted in a recent article, “I’ve gone everywhere whooping cranes are. My job took me to those places, and I always made it my business to look up the whooping cranes when I had a chance.”

In retirement, McConnell publishes a very active blog and website called Friends of the Wild Whoopers, to keep other enthusiasts informed about the birds and their habitat. He and his publishing partner Pam Bates recently established Friends of the Wild Whoopers as a nonprofit that will acquire land to maintain and increase the habitat where whooping cranes winter over, nest, and stopover during migration. They also help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat, raise funds to provide rewards for persons who inform on those who kill whooping cranes, and educate interested persons about whooping cranes and their needs.

So an interest that began in 5th grade with My Weekly Reader has filled a life with purposeful work. Journalist Sara Sneath in the Victoria Advocate quotes McConnell, “They’re a beautiful bird. And they’re the largest bird in North America. People just fall in love with them when they see them. You just have a soft spot in your heart for anything that has a hard time getting along.”

Similarly, Dr. George Archibald, ICF co-founder, first learned about whooping cranes not via My Weekly Reader, but through a Canadian radio show that he heard as a student in Nova Scotia. Here is the ICF mission statement:

Inspiring A Global Community The International Crane Foundation (ICF) commits to a future where all crane species are secure – a future where people cooperate to protect and restore wild populations and their ecosystems. These efforts sustain the places where cranes live, to the benefit of countless other species.

International Crane Foundation Headquarters in Baraboo, Wisconsin

International Crane Foundation Headquarters in Baraboo, Wisconsin

And the whooping crane that so fascinated me as a child? Well, thanks to the work of thousands of people with a passion for that magnificent bird, including the folks at the International Crane Foundation, whoopers have recovered from a low of only 21 birds in the wild in the 1940s to around 599 birds today. The whooping crane’s recovery is one of conservation’s most inspiring success stories.

Whooping Crane with Chick

Whooping Crane with Chick

You can follow their progress on the ICF Facebook page.

You can also go to the ICF website and adopt a crane for your classroom for only $50.

Children Mesmerized Learning about Cranes

Children Mesmerized As They Learn about Cranes

To get your students started investigating cranes, check out these videos.

The first is under two minutes long and shows an encounter between a crane and an alligator. If you stop it at .48 seconds, you could ask your students to predict what will happen. This might make an excellent hook.

And this 8 minute National Geographic video on Operation Migration will introduce your students to the ingenious ways people have devised to bring whooping cranes back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps it will plant in one of them the same fascination with whooping cranes that My Weekly Reader inspired in me so many years ago.

I ask you to reflect as you plan. What can you do today that will create a ripple effect in the mind of a child? What new worlds can you open that will be life shaping for a child in your classroom? What stories can you tell that will resonate down through the years? What books can you recommend that some child will take to heart? What field trips can you provide that your students will never forget? You might never know the answer to these questions, but perhaps it’s enough for any of us to simply create as rich a set of experiences, as deep a pool of knowledge, as we possibly can in our classrooms and then let the spark of individual curiosity take over from there and set a young imagination to flight.

The Magnificence of Flying Cranes

The Magnificence of Flying Cranes

The eminent Jungian psychologist, author, and teacher James Hillman spoke of just that kind of mystery, the great question of character and destiny. In his bestseller The Soul’s Code, he suggested that our calling in life is inborn and inherent and that it’s our mission in life to realize it. He called it the “acorn theory” — the idea that our lives are formed by a particular image, just as the oak’s destiny is contained in the tiny acorn. He was probably drawing on Aristotle’s concept of “entelechy,” the need for self-fullment that we all share and that starts with the seed and comes to full fruition in the tree.

But that seed needs fertile soil to grow and flourish, so why not shape your classroom to be a place that will nourish your students’ life passions and allow them to take root.

~ Penny

Learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

Photo Credits: All photos are courtesy of the International Crane Foundation, with the exception of the final photo, that of flying cranes, which is courtesy of Dave and Liz Smith.

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