Category Archives: Teaching Moments

Wild About Rocket Boys – Wilder Elementary Students Honor Homer Hickam's Passion for Science

Houston, we have lift-off! The fourth graders at Wilder Elementary in Littleton, Colorado, invited me to participate in their annual paper rocket launch. This 4th grade unit is inspired by the original rocket boy, Homer Hickam. Instead of using pieces of lead pipe and gun powder, these kid-friendly rockets are made from construction paper, tape and clay… that’s it. No engines or explosives in these rockets – the only fuel was 70 pounds of air pressure.

I first learned how to make the PVC Rocket Launcher several years ago while speaking to teachers at Space Camp for Educators in Huntsville, Alabama. The morning started with each student making their first launch. Some of the rocket designs were great while others just blew up on the launch pad. It was back to the drawing board as the students reanalyzed their designs, fixed the flaws and headed out for the second launch. The success rate for the second launch was well above 80%… and the young rocket engineers were amazed to see their success.

The greatest learning moment of the entire morning was the numerous failures the students experienced on their first attempt.

The students expected success… and when they failed it forced them to re-tool and try again. This hands-on rocket activity is an extension of the normal space unit that is standard at this grade level across the school district. However, the teachers at Wilder take the unit to a new level (pun intended) as they Homer Hickam’s October Sky story and his passion for exploration and discovery as a catalyst for their own students to get engaged in the scientific method. This single lesson does more to drive home the importance of trial and error than anything I’ve seen in years. Best of all, the students write about their successes and failures and reflect on the feelings that they must have shared with the author.

If launching rockets wasn’t fun enough, just wait until the real rocket scientists show up from United Launch Alliance here in Colorado. It also doesn’t hurt to have parents of students who work at ULA and support this style of hands-on learning. Ellen Plese from ULA stopped by to not only show her support but to bring goodies for all of our finalists.

PVC Rocket Launcher at Wilder Elementary

Pranks & Tricks for April Fool's Day

April Fool’s day is this Friday. Do you have your pranks ready to go? Our staff spends the majority of March perfecting their pranking in anticipation of the day. I’d declare April 1st a company-wide holiday, except it’s too much fun to mess with your co-workers. A day off of work would just ruin the “holiday.”

A few of our staffers practiced their tricks last week in our company kitchen using Water Gel, coffee and a little imagination.

Hydrogels, or super absorbant polymers, can absorb over 100x their own weight in water. Farmers and gardeners use it to keep crops and plants hydrated during times of drought. It can also be used as the perfect prop for pranks and magic tricks.

Water Gel, the Sugar Substitute
This prank is incredibly easy to pull off and the look on your victims’ faces are guaranteed to be priceless!

  1. Start by emptying the sugar from it’s container. Be sure to put the sugar into another container so that it can be replaced later. The prank is bound to take a turn from funny to tragic if you waste all that sugar.
  2. Once you have an empty sugar container, fill the container with Water Gel. Try to fill the container to the same level as the sugar you removed. The success of pranks is often in the details.
  3. Replace the lid of the container (if it has one).
  4. Sit back and watch as countless victims fall for your epic April Fool’s prank.

You are responsible for ensuring that your victim doesn’t actually drink the Water Gel. Make sure your prank is fun, and not dangerous.

Check out our April Fool’s Day experiment for two magic tricks to do with Water Gel.

Teacher Brings Love of Science to The Netherlands

Triscia is a high school math teacher from New York City who recently moved to The Netherlands. She began her career as a high school biology and chemistry teacher. In moving to Holland, she has reconnected with her true passion – science.
As Triscia works to learn Dutch and find her way in the school system, she offers free science demonstration lessons. She collaborates with the classroom teacher before to create a lesson plan, incorporate learning strategies and discuss the connections they need to continue with after the demo.
She wrote me recently to share some pictures of a demonstration lesson she gave to a class of 6 to 9 year olds in a Montessori school. Triscia taught a lesson about elements, molecules and states of matter. Triscia says the children were focused for over three hours. When their teacher tried to stop the lesson to give the children their break, they screamed, “No! We want to learn!”
Science is addicting in any language if it is taught with enthusiasm and hands-on lessons.
A special thank you to Triscia for writing us and sharing her story.

Oil Settled to Bottom of Ocean After Gulf Oil Spill

The oil left behind from the Deep Horizon catastrophe on April 20, 2010 is still threatening the Gulf region’s people, economy and environment. During the event, a total of 185 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf region. At a glance, the water looks clear and life appears to be returning to normal. Marinas have reopened and fisherman are returning to work. But that’s not the case deep under the surface.

The government is estimating that less than 25% of the oil is still in the area, but scientists say the oil isn’t gone, it has settled at the bottom of the ocean.

According to ABC News, a “mile below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, there is little sign of life.”

ABC News was given the opportunity to see the impact of last summer’s massive oil spill from the U.S. Navy’s deep-ocean research machine. From the submersible at 5,000 feet down, the ocean floor looks like it is littered with twigs. But the twigs are really dead worms littered inside an 80-square mile kill zone. University of Georgia professor Samantha Joye told ABC News “We’re finding it everywhere that we’ve looked. The oil is not gone, it’s in places where nobody has looked for it.”

According to a story on NPR, another research group also reported finding oil on the ocean floor.  “Researchers at the University of South Florida say they saw oil particles sprinkled on top of the mud. These new findings strongly suggest that it didn’t just drizzle oil — in some places it was a blizzard.”

The region will take years if not decades to recover from the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history. 2010 will go down as one of the worst years for environmental disasters and natural disasters related to climate change. has a “Timeline of Unfortunate Events” of the oil spill on their website.

Pine Beetle Kills Thousands of Acres of Trees in Colorado… But the Blue-ish Wood is Gorgeous!

Mountain Pine BeetleIf you’ve had the fortune of visiting Colorado’s high country – especially Summit County – over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed all of the dead pine trees. You can’t blame this one on drought, but instead, a tiny little black beetle living just under the bark. According to Colorado State forestry officials, an estimated 750,000 acres of trees have been killed by the Mountain Pine Beetle… and this is just the beginning. But now we’re starting to see the creative, entrepreneurial spirit of people who are finding great uses for the “pine kill” wood.

I stopped in at Mi Cocina (one of my favorite local Mexican restaurants in Littleton, Colorado) this morning for a breakfast burrito only to find this surprise… brand new floors made from beetle-kill wood. While the pictures don’t do the color of the wood justice, the blue-ish tint of the wood is stunning. Biologists tells us that the blue-ish color comes from a bluestain fungi introduced by the beetle. This fungi disables the tree’s defenses and interrupts the flow of water. The combination of fungi and beetle feeding rapidly kills the tree. Ten to twelve months after a successful attack, infested tree foliage turns yellowish to reddish. Soon after, the beetles are ready to exit and search for a new home.

I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing more and more this beautiful wood showing up in furniture and flooring throughout Colorado… or wherever else the bad little beetle decides to wipe out entire forests!

More about the Mountain Pine Beetle featured on Science Mondays at 9News…


This is not the first “green” initiative for the Littleton-based Mi Cocina Restaurant. Several years ago, the owners installed photovoltaic cells over their patio area to generate enough electricity to light part of their customer seating area. The beetle-kill floor is just their latest initiative to promote a more “green” eating environment… and based on my way of thinking, it’s working!

November 30, 2010

Littleton, Colorado – A new beetle-kill floor has been installed at Mi Cocina Mexican Restaurant in Littleton, Colorado. It is the first such application of beetle-kill pine flooring in a restaurant in the United States.

Information from The Beetle-kill Trade Association says that today we are in a disaster situation demanding immediate unity but it is harder to see since the disaster we are facing is coming at us at a glacier’s pace. We have too much time to discuss it, too much time to analyze it, and too much time to assume that someone else is doing something about it. Lily Tomlin was once quoted saying, “I always wondered why someone didn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was someone.”

There are 3.5 million acres of beetle-kill pine in Colorado, and we are not alone in this disaster.  Trees from Alaska to British Columbia and south through the Rocky Mountain region are being destroyed due to this formidable foe.  It is imperative to develop beetle-kill pine products and get new forests growing again. A sad ecological story can be turned into something eco-friendly and beautiful! To find out more go to

Using beetle-kill pine, also called blue-stain wood, fits in with the green-building standard. This unique wood is being used for furniture, log homes, firewood, wood beams, cabinetry, and paneling. The application at Mi Cocina is an innovative use for beetle-kill pine products…a commercial floor.

The new floor at Mi Cocina is environmentally friendly, not only because of the wood used, but the floors are finished with water base BonaKemi; 1 coat BonaSeal and 3 coats BonaTraffic.

The floor is in a public building so people can come in and see it at any time. Install it in your own home.

Get even with the Mountain Pine Bark Beetle!