Category Archives: Informal Science Education

A Matter of Balance

One of my many “parlor tricks” is to leave a restaurant with the salt shaker balanced on a single grain of salt. My kids just sigh and take it for granted now. salt shaker, grain of salt It might look like a magic trick, but the the salt shaker balancing act is really a feat of science, plain and simple. The beveled edge of most restaurant salt shakers only needs a tiny flat edge to lean against, and voila: magic.

It’s also really easy to do. Easy, and impressive.

Just pour a small pile of salt onto the table top, or a plate, or any absolutely flat surface. Set the shaker into the salt and press until the shaker is well into the salt. Now, tip it and start trying to balance. There’s no rhyme or reason to this part; you just have to tip and balance until you feel the shaker settle, and then you let go. You’ll know when you can remove your hand. You’ll just. . . . know.  Once the shaker is balanced, carefully blow all the rest of the salt pile away.  All you really needed was one grain.

This is an activity that can easily become a habit.

salt shaker at Nick's English Hut

Grains of salt are not symmetrical; they’re fairly square-ish but not perfect. They do, however, have several facets, or flat sides, and that’s what your salt shaker will find to lean on.

magnified grain of salt

A salt shaker will balance more easily than will the pepper shaker because the weight of the salt helps with the balance.  Pepper is a lot lighter.  Oh, it will eventually balance, too, but it’s a lot easier to use the salt shaker.

If the shaker has even a slightly beveled bottom edge, balancing it is easier, but with some practice, you’ll be able to balance almost any kind of container on a grain of salt.  Pop cans, glassware, coins, napkin dispensers. . .  just be careful.  A full or partially full container will balance more easily than will an empty container.  You need a little ballast to lean against the salt facet.

My father used to say that he spent a lot of tuition money for me to go to college and learn this trick all on my own in the cafeteria, but quite honestly, I’ve gotten a lot more enjoyment and actual classroom use from the balancing salt shaker demonstration than I got from Intro to Aztec Sociology 216.  Not but what all that digging into the human heart with the bare hands wasn’t interesting and informative. . . .I mean, when I saw that heart removal scene in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” I understand exactly what was happening.  But I’d still rather share the salt shaker balancing act.

The Spangler Demo Team Does the Reverse #ALSIceBucketChallenge

Steve Spangler and his demo team was challenged by a few of our fans and customers to join into the #ALSIceBucketChallenge.

We are a science company after all, so we had to add a science spin to the challenge.

Liquid Nitrogen  is 323 degrees below zero (translation – extremely icy liquid.)

We didn’t dump the liquid nitrogen over our heads. It is so cold, it will cause burns. Instead, our team dumped water into the liquid nitrogen for a completely different effect.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

The Spangler Science demo team now challenges… the Ellen DeGeneres Show backstage crew, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Sid the Science Kid (because we want to see a puppet dump water on its head and support ALS).

Donate to the #ALSIceBucketChallenge >

The Beauty of Clouds

Ever since I was little, clouds have fascinated me.   A simple little visible mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere,  I realize, but mesmerizing, nonetheless.  Storm clouds have especially intrigued me over the years, and with weather season right around the corner there is no better time to talk about clouds, then now!

My Instagram-ed photo ofLenticular Clouds at sunset just outside the Spangler Office.
My Instagram-ed photo ofLenticular Clouds at sunset just outside the Spangler Office.

As a child I would lay in the grass and imagine the fluffy white clouds as the gates to heaven… beyond which, the wonder of the universe was endless.   And sometimes… they just looked like an animal or an ice cream cone. Nature’s scribble pad for me to browse through for hours on end.

Nature's Paint Set
Nature’s Majesty – some stratocumulus clouds at sunset over my apartment. Kind of makes you want to break out your True Color Tablets, doesn’t it?

In school, we learned that clouds form when moist, warm rising air cools and expands in the atmosphere.  When that water vapor condenses, it forms tiny little water droplets.  After the cloud droplets form, they either collide with each other and grow by joining together.  If those droplets grow too large, they will fall to the ground as rain or snow.

Which is cool and all, but it’s the beauty of the cloud,  the visual stimulation of the formation itself, is what always makes me stop in my tracks to snap a shot.

Cumulonimbus Cloud with a rainbow
Nimbostratus Cloud with a rainbow – caught on my way home from work one day.  Time to break out your prisms, right?

As I grew older, I began snapping pictures of clouds, particularly clouds during storms,  and have gained quite a collection of some amazing cloud formations.  So I have decided to share them with you throughout this post.  Some clouds are in formations that I had never seen until I moved to Colorado.

I’m no expert by any means, but I’ve done my research over the years.  When I snapped a picture of an interesting cloud, and wanted to know more, I did what every other human being would do..I asked the internet! hus have decided to share some of the facts that I’ve found!

Super Cool, dark and ominous Nimbostratus Clouds.
Super cool, dark, and ominous storm clouds I caught on my way home one day.  The darker the better for me and my camera!

 

Did you know that the smaller those cloud droplets are, the brighter they appear?  This is because the tiny droplets scatter more sunlight.  Large droplets allow more sunlight to pass through, which is typically why it’s lighter during the biggest downpour in a thunderstorm, rather than the darkness we experience during  the cloudy portion of the storm. (Which is my favorite part!)

Wall clouds during sunset.
Wall clouds at twilight can be super pretty, even though they may pose a weather threat.  These however, feel less threatening as I take them through my window!

Wall Clouds are large formations caused when moist, humid air near the ground gets drawn up into the storm cloud, and condenses to form this monster. (Even though it may appear that the cloud is being compressed from above.)  These amazing clouds are always rain-free because of the air moving upward into the cloud.

Wall Cloud Rotation
Wall Cloud Rotation

Wall Clouds often have a very noticeable rotation, which is what makes our other not so welcoming friend, the tornado!

 

Mammatus Cloud Formation
Small Mammatocumulus Formation

Mammatus (a.k.a Mammatocumulus)   I found is a meteorologic term used for cloud pockets or pouches that hang underneath the base of a cloud.   These clouds do not produce severe weather, but tend to be associated with strong storms and tornados. But don’t fret, they do not signal that a tornado is forming like our wall cloud friends sometimes do.   What really happening is that those pouches are created when the high concentration of saturated air is heavier than the surrounding air, so it sinks back down toward the earth. 

Mammatocumulus formations out my window.
Mammatocumulus formations just outside my living room window.

 Hole Punch Clouds  are another formation that has always made me ask, “How did that happen?”  These formations are found in altocumulus cloud layers, but the reasoning behind the formation tends to cause speculation.  What is believed to be creating these formations are airplanes.

These altocumulus layers  where the Hole Punch Clouds reside, contain super-cooled water.  When something comes in contact with the clouds, like an airplane, the cold water droplets rush over the warm propeller blades or wings of the plane.  As this happens, those tiny frigid water droplets begin to expand and contract.   They will contract back into the cloud themselves, leaving a hole in the layer.

If the droplets can’t find a particle to cling to you get drifting ice crystal particles that will sometimes fall, and make a streaky cone shape under the hole, which is also called a Fall-streak Cloud.

Super Pretty formations, most likely due to an airplane.
Super Pretty Hole Punch Cloud formations, most likely due to an airplane.

Wow, I didn’t realize how much I knew about clouds!  So, thanks for allowing me to share some of my photos with you today!!

Anyone know what kind of cloud this is?
Anyone know what kind of cloud this is?

Intrigued by weather yourself and want some great weather related products?  Look no further than with us here at Steve Spangler Science!  We have fun things like Insta-Snow Powder, Tornado Tubes and Cloud in a Bottle that can really boost your weather lesson.

Need more ideas or just love clouds like I do? Leave a comment below!

Connecting the Dots Between Each Lesson

Yes, it’s true;  I use all kinds of science in my writing labs to help my students connect the dots,  from one cool thing to another.  I’ve done this for many years.  And guess what: this WORKS.

Here’s the thing about learning: everything is connected to everything else. As soon as a student understands this one little point, things change.

connect the dotsToday’s lesson instantly connects to yesterday’s lesson, and last week’s lesson, and that lesson in first grade which you didn’t understand – not a single word – but now you do, and it happened all by itself. Or did it. . .It’s like we woke up one morning and suddenly something we didn’t understand before makes sense. We spend our lives connecting the dots, and if we do it right, we’ll have a far cooler end result than the horsie or duckie we ended up with on those preschool sewing cards.  We’ll have constellations of connections.

Everything we learn and know is so ready, so EAGER,  to connect to new things, and to each other. Every student in my labs is smart, and ready to learn new things – perhaps not in conventional ways, but I have NEVER been accused of being conventional  (I consider this a compliment.) and ALL are ready to learn, whether they realize it or not. In my experience, people who learn best in unconventional ways are the creative ones, the thinkers, the ones who DO things, and often the kinds of things that are going to save us all.  I love this kind of student.  All I have to do is keep tossing out potential fascinations.

That’s my job. I throw fascinations in people’s faces. Sometimes I lightly toss them. Sometimes I barrel them into a student’s face as if I were chucking a cannonball at him. Sometimes I see a fascination drifting by and I blow it around the room and make sure every pair of eyes follows it, even for just a few seconds.  I’ve been known to use vocabulary that some might deem, shall we say, unconventional, at times.

The things we learn while laughing, we almost always remember.  Well, I do.

Mundane things are mundane only if we are content to let them be mundane. Old dogs CAN be taught new tricks. There’s no such thing as boredom unless we choose boredom.

I often use Insta-Snow to demonstrate that often the addition of one single simple thing can INSTANTLY transform a little piece of learning into a really big deal.  A few pinches of plain white salt-like powder in the bottom of a bowl, a little water, and HOLY COW, the stuff rises up before our very eyes and overflows the bowl and covers the table with white fluffy coolness. . .

Insta-Snow. . . you know, just like our thoughts when, more often than we realize, one simple additional thing makes a simple thought explode with wonder.

Some connections are made instantly.  Some connections take a little more time.  This is easily illustrated with various polymers.

And, all of these things being polymers, they’ll last pretty much forever.  I’ve got polymer Christmas decorations that are over four years old now, and because they’re sealed up, they’ll never shrink.  Let your polymers dry out again and you can reuse them for years.  YEARS.  Store them in baggies or in Tupperware.  Polymers are so easy.

art, science, wonder These polymers are so versatile – science, art, any other part of the curriculum, sensory projects, crafts. . . there are few areas where polymer products can’t be an enhancement. They’re inexpensive, too – especially when you consider that they last virtually forever.

They’re also beaucoup  fun! (<-cool word – look it up and use it!)

This is what I do all day.  Don’t you wish you were me?  I LOVE my job!

Next up in writing lab:  “I’m dumping this on your head.”

You have been warned.

Backyard Archaeology

There is genuine archaeology in your back yard; you don’t have to travel to Greece, or Pompeii, or the La Brea Tar Pits to discover archaeological artifacts and fossils, you know.  More often than you think, these things (maybe not the dinosaur bones, but you never know!) can be found in the back yard.  Let’s talk about artifacts first and save the fossils for next time.

arrowheads kn gravel These two arrowheads, for example, were found by my husband and my son on two different occasions as they plowed and planted our garden. Arrowheads and spearheads will often turn up when the earth is turned up!

We lived out in the country in a big house that sat well off the road, and every year we had to buy a huge load arrowheads2of limestone gravel. After the gravel was spread over the quarter-mile driveway, the excited search began. Almost without fail, at least one arrowhead would turn up in the load. Finding it kept my two children busy for at least three days, and while they almost always found at least one, sometimes there were as many as six or seven.  The arrowheads were often chipped or broken, but there were always enough intact ones to make the search thrilling.

What my family liked best, though, was walking through the woods behind our house and glancing down to see a spearhead.  This didn’t happen often, but it happened often enough that even today, we all walk through the woods with our eyes on the ground.  Of course, this is also how people here find morel mushrooms in season, so, you know, double coolness.

spearheadsWe lived in that house for over twenty years, and in that time my kids and my husband collected a lot of arrowheads.  Only a few spearheads, but a lot of arrowheads.

This experience was an incredibly awesome combination of general science, history, archaeology, local culture, geography, geology, craftsmanship, man-made tools, warfare, cooking, biology, indigenous people, and observation.

As are most lessons if they’re done right.

Jane GoodwinJane Goodwin is a professor of expository writing at Ivy Tech Community College, a hands-on science teacher for College for Kids, a professional speaker and writer, and a social media liaison  for Steve Spangler Science.  She wanted to be a ballerina and an astronaut, but gravity got the better of her.