Take a Science Vacation – Summer Learning in Yellowstone National Park

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

My family and I visited Yellowstone last week. The girls and I had never been, but my husband had spent a few summers in the Youth Conservation Corps back in his youthful days. I knew Yellowstone was full of geothermal features and a lot of wildlife, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much science abounds in the park. If you are looking for an unplugged, family learning vacation, head to Northwestern Wyoming and Yellowstone.

Yellowstone was the first national park established in 1872.

As we drove into the park on a hot Friday evening, it was quiet. Just the forest and the setting sun. Until we reached the center of the park and the edge of the caldera. Steam was rising into the air from vents along the road. Even more steam was rising from the edge of the lake. The edge of the lake!! I felt like a kid as I was surrounded by geology. Living geology. The stuff I read about in school – geysers, vents, mud volcanoes, hot springs and fumaroles. Even after reading about Yellowstone, I wasn’t prepared to be this excited.

I grew up in Colorado – visited the hot springs, hiked and camped in the mountains, seen elk and deer. I thought I had already experienced the majority of natural wonder and magic in the mountains of Colorado. I’ve also visited Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala crater in Hawaii. I’ve seen lava flows and volcanic cones. I’d I had no idea what I was missing (besides Old Faithful).

Yellowstone holds half of the earth’s geothermal features in its more than 3,400 square miles. You can walk, hike and even just drive up to many of the 300 geysers and 10,000 thermal features. As the mud bubbles and the steam blows over the crusted earth, you know you are standing on top of a live volcano.

If you are planning a trip to Yellowstone, prepare for a lot of science.

Junior Ranger and Science Badge

Young scientist badge at Yellowstone National Park

The Junior Ranger program is free for children ages 5 to 12 visiting the park. Stop at any Yellowstone visitor center and request a 12-page activity guide. Based on age, children will need to complete a required number of pages inside the guide as well as attend a ranger talk, hiking on a park trail and completing activities. Although at least a day or two to complete the packet. Return the packet to the visitor center to receive your badge.

Yellowstone also offers a Science badge at the Canyon and Old Faithful areas. (My advice is to do the Old Faithful badge – it involves the geysers and geothermal features.) Children ages 5 and up purchase a booklet at the Canyon Vistor Education Center or Old Faithful Visitor Center for $5. Learn more about the science of Yellowstone by completing the booklet. The rangers will also check out a Young Scientist Toolkit that includes a thermometer, stopwatch and other gear needed to complete the assignment. This activity will take around three hours to complete as you explore the geyser basin near Old Faithful. Young Scientists will earn a badge or keychain.

Geothermal and Hydrothermal Features

Yellowstone has a diverse collection of geysers, hot springs (which can reach temperatures of 400 degrees +), mudpots (bubbling and boiling “muddles”), fumaroles (steam vents), hot spring terraces, and lava flows. Park rangers, visitor centers and maps will direct you to these features. I also tried several apps while we were there. The best one was from Chimani. They offered a driving tour which described several of the best features and areas.

Don’t miss Old Faithful…a spectacular earth science show that will excite. This isn’t the fountains at the Bellagio. Our planet puts on this show. After watching it erupt (about every 90 minutes) take a walk around the other geothermal features in the area. Hot springs and smaller geysers are gorgeous and just as spectacular. You can also hike up to a nearby hillside and watch Old Faithful erupt from a different angle. There are so many features close together, you can spend an entire day in the Old Faithful area.

Just up the road from Old Faithful is the Midway Basin. This area offers several parking areas, walkways and hikes to waterfalls and more hot springs. Don’t miss the Grand Prismatic. This hot spring is about 200 meters across and is the biggest of its kind. Just don’t wear a hat on a windy day. The pools are full of hats, even just a few feet off the path, lost forever.

And one more thing – keep in mind these are natural features, not wishing wells or trash cans. Morning Glory Pool – one of the most beautiful springs in the park, gets plugged up from people throwing trash, coins and other items into the hole. As the hole clogs, the water temperature changes and many of the microorganisms in the pool are killed. The organisms are what create the beautiful colors. Treat the living earth with respect.

Microbiology and Microorganisms

My 8-year-old budding microbiologist found a book in the National Park gift store on all of the tiny creatures living in Yellowstone. Algae, and bacterial mats live in the springs and the rock, giving Yellowstone its color. There are unseen, fragile forests of bacteria that stretch out from the hot springs in brown ribbons. Astronomers study these tiny life forms in Yellowstone in hopes of gaining knowledge on potential life on other planets. If these micro-animals can live where nothing else can on earth, they may also hold the key to life across the universe.

Flora and Fauna 

The park abounds with wildlife. Bison are everywhere – walking down the roads, in front of cabin ice machines (it’s a long story), in open meadows and anywhere they want to visit. We saw bison hoof prints in the mud volcanoes and along the dangerous and unsteady land near the hot springs. Even with all the bison in plain sight everywhere, you realize that this is still a small percentage of how many roamed the west before they were almost wiped out.

Deer, elk, moose, big horn sheep, fox, black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves are the most searched for animals in the park. You may spot one in the back trails or alongside the road. It all depends on luck. The Yellowstone website has a map and checklist of the best places to spot certain animals.

Wildlife watchers hang out on overlooks in Hayden Park, watching for anything that moves. We observed some wolves across the meadows nipping at a bison, testing it for weakness. There is nothing like watching wildlife behave like the wildlife you see on nature shows right before your eyes.

There are more than 1,350 species of plants and wildflowers in the park. We apparently weren’t there in wildflower season, but wouldn’t have had any idea. A huge variety of plants and flowers were everywhere.

Even More Geology

The park has diverse geological features. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was formed from erosion. There are also glacial deposits, rhyolite lava flows, faults and my favorite, hoodoos. Hoodoos are tall, skinny spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of basins. Look closely at the rocks in the canyon – they contain a variety of different iron compounds. Exposure to the elements causes the rocks to change color or oxidize. The canyon wall is rusting.

Wildfire Science

Yellowstone’s landscape has been shaped by fire. There is still a lot of evidence from recent and past fires, including the 1988 fires, in the park. We looked closely at the landscape and tried to make educated guesses on how long ago fires had burned in a specific section. Some areas had few blacked trees standing, while most had fallen to the forest floor, and small to medium sized trees growing. Other areas barely had new grass on the forest floor with most of the burned trees still standing. For more on Yellowstone wildland fires, the 1988 fires and how fires are a part of the ecology, visit the Yellowstone website.

Even if you aren’t headed to Yellowstone in the near future, you can take a virtual tour and learn more about what the park has to offer through its Kids Online website.

What are your favorite places to explore in Yellowstone? Where do you take a science vacation?

The Science Behind Worms

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

As I was digging in my backyard this weekend, planting the last of my flowers and vegetables, I came across several worms. As the dry, bright sunlight hit my squirmy little friends, they wriggled and writhed to immediately get back to their underground world. In all my digging, I accidentally sliced one in half. This made me start to ponder more about worms. We all know they are good for the earth and possess incredible healing powers, but what is the science behind these creatures of the dirt world?

There are over 3,000 known species of earthworms in the world. They are everywhere there is soil.

Experts believe native worm species were wiped out when glaciers covered the earth. Most of today’s earthworms originated from Europe by traveling in the rootstocks of plants.

Worms make soil and are natural soil tillers. They can eat their weight in dirt each day. One acre of soil may contain up to one million worms. Those worms can produce around 700 pounds of castings each day. The castings contain nitrogen and other nutrients essential for plant growth. Worm compost improves soil structure and drainage while increasing nutrients. They also till the soil by mixing layers and producing tunnels. This helps air and water reach plant roots. They are also a food source for many different types of animals and birds.

They get nutrition from decaying roots and leaves in the soil. Animal poop and decomposing animal remains are also nutritious food for worms.

The anatomy of a worm does not include eyes or teeth. Worms can sense light, especially at their front end. They will move away from light into the dark depths of the earth to stay moist. They are unable to breathe if their skin dries out. Worms exposed to light for about an hour will become paralyzed and unable to burrow back into the damp darkness.

No teeth means food is softened by moisture and microorganisms inside the worm’s body. Food is broken down further in the worm’s gizzard. Hard particles and muscles grind the food.

Earthworms breathe through their skin, so if they dry out, oxygen can no longer travel into their body.

Setae, tiny feeler-bristles on the bottoms of worms, help them move through the soil. These bristles also help the worms grip the soil when a hungry robin is above trying to yank them out for dinner.

The middle band or collar is the clitellum. It forms an egg and secretes mucus to form a cocoon. Only adults have clitellum. Their head is usually extended as the worm travels and is the end closest to the clitellum.

Worms can travel both forward and backwards.

They reproduce by joining their clitella (the swollen area near the head) and exchanging sperm. Worms are hermaphrodites, having both male and female organs. After mating, each worm will form an egg in its clitellum. After 7 to 10 days, the egg is released into the castings. After 14 to 21 days, one to five baby worms hatch from each egg. They will be mature in about 60 to 90 days.

Worms can live up to four years. When they die, their bodies are recycled by other worms. They survive winters by hibernating below the frost line and hibernating. Eggs can survive a winter inside a cocoon. Worms survive dry seasons by hibernating deep in the soil until wetter conditions return. They enter a reduced metabolic state called estivation, a form of hibernation.

According to worm experts Dr. Dennis Linden and Cindy Hale, worms do not surface during rains to avoid drowning, but instead to move over land. Wet conditions give worms an opportunity to quickly move to new places without drying out. We had an unusually wet few days this spring in Denver. I arrived home to see my driveway covered in worms. Not realizing these were the migrating, thrill-seeker worms, I grabbed a piece of cardboard and scooped all of the worms back into the grass. The sun came out a few minutes later and I considered myself a worm savior. I can only hope I dropped them into a new and exciting plot of grass that opened up some exploration. Worms on pavement  can get disoriented and lose their way back to dirt. When their body dries out, they cannot breathe and die.

I’ve always rejoiced in knowing my sliced worms will regenerate when I accidentally hit them with the shovel. But this is incorrect. They can heal quickly. The head portion of a halved worm may grow a new tail if that segment contains all of the vital organs. The tail end will not regenerate. I will now bow my head and say a little something in memory of my sacrificed worm.

Before digging, you can perform a little worm CSI by looking closely at the soil. Worms will leave small piles or pellets of soil on the surface. If you dig in and find wet, slick tunnels, you may have uncovered a burrow.

Worms are essential to the health of the earth. One way to improve the soil in your garden and promote a healthy earth is to compost. In April, we shared some tips and tricks to composting in your backyard. One worm bin containing 2,000 red worms can produce 7 pounds of castings in a month.

Red worms are the best for compost bins because they are natural surface feeders that do not burrow like nightcrawlers. Red worms also do not mind being confined. They can be purchased from worm farms by the pound.

Commercial and hobby farmers are recognizing the benefits of having a worm farm. Vermicompost encourages plants to grow stronger and helps them become more resistant to disease and insects.

Worms are not the only essential living organisms in a compost bin. Billions of microorganisms live in the worm bin. They get into the bin from the skin of the worm and soil added. Food waste brings in additional microorganisms. Fungal and bacterial spores from the air also descend on the bin. Some people believe garbage in landfills also decomposes like that in a compost bin. Landfills are lacking air and moisture and most importantly, worms. They cannot live in those conditions. Therefore, garbage in landfills takes much longer to decompose.



Thanks to Compost.Cornell.Edu, NYTimes.com, Learner.org

Zipwire Science – A Lesson in Gravity and Friction

 By Maggy Woodley from Red Ted Art

We do love to have FUN in our house and we love nothing more than a bit of PLAY. The best part about play however, is that you are learning WHILST having fun. But I am sure I am “preaching to the converted.”

A few weeks ago, we decided to put up a little Superhero Zipwire in our garden (I actually thought it may make a great Party Game for our Superhero Party, so we were testing it out).

It was quick and easy to set up and provided a GREAT science learning opportunity for us:

1)     We got to talk about GRAVITY

2)     We got to talk about FRICTION

My kids are only 5 years old and 3 years old, so of course many science concepts and terms are quite “above their heads,” however, I found that still talking about and introducing concepts is a great way to help them familiarise themselves with what seems tricky and science becomes kind of second nature.

So. Firstly, we set it up our zipwire:


  • 2 different pieces of string (we used garden twine and curling ribbon)
  • toy
  • paper clip
  • somewhere to span your zip wire between

We tied one piece of rough garden twine on the top of our playhouse and the other at the side of our fence. (Basically tie your rope at a slope anywhere you can and of course you can do this indoors too). You could tie it to a door handle and the bottom of a chair. I find a taught bit of string is better to get a good flying motion.

Our superhero had “cupped” hands so we were able to whizz it down like that, but some of our other toys didn’t, so we attached a paper clip.

We let our superhero go… and whizzz…. off he went. Red Ted LOVED it. So we discussed WHY the superhero was whizzing along: GRAVITY. I told him how gravity makes us stay on the ground and that it is the reason that things drop down. We talked about how there was less gravity on the moon (they had been covering space at school), as the moon is smaller. And that if you are in space, there is no gravity at all (and the zip wire wouldn’t work!).

The next day, the garden string (which is quite rough anyway), was damp. And the superhero wasn’t whizzing down so well.

“MUMMY! Why isn’t it working today?”

I told him about FRICTION and how friction slows things down. It is absorbing some of the gravitational energy. The wet string clearly had a higher friction as the dry one. To show the point some more, I fetched some curling ribbon – which is strong and SMOOTH. We created a zip wire from it and sent the Superhero down that – JOY it was SO FAST.

We compared the smooth ribbon with the frayed sides of the string – what was the difference? Can you see the smooth ribbon and can you see all the “bits” standing up on the string? What do you think is happening as the superhero goes down?

By the end of the weekend the garden was covered in criss crossing zipwires and the kids spend hours outside experimenting and observing.

A simple lesson in both GRAVITY and FRICTION and lots of FUN had!

Maggy Woodley is best known for her craft blog Red Ted Art, where she loves to get crafty with her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter and has just written her first wonderful craft book for kids: Red Ted Art. With a background in Engineering, she is passionate about Science and making it fun for kids. She also regularly explores sciences with fellow bloggers at Life At The Zoo and can also be found on Theatre Books and Movies.




Isabella the Science Girl Shows Teachers and Students That Science Knows No Age Limit

Isabella is a 5-year-old super science kid who lives in Caguas, Puerto Rico. She has been conducting science experiments since she was two years old.

Isabella is a very curious child. She wants to know how things work, she’s very interested in nature, animals, the weather all those things fascinate her. When she was a toddler we took her to a children’s museum and she was fascinated with the exhibits about the human body and wanted to know how everything worked; ears, eyes, tongue etc.. After that all she wanted was to know how things work and how they are made. Some of her questions were; why are plants green? Why the colors in the rainbow? How thunders happen? What is the moon? What is the sun? What is a hurricane? She observed and wanted to know.

- Isabel Gandulla, Isabella’s mom

Isabella’s first experiments were simple – focusing on basic and acid solutions using baking soda to see which liquids could create a reaction. She ran around the house looking for more liquids to mix and see if they would react.

Now, every night at her bedtime, Isabella picks a theme, like how to make paper. Her mom helps her find an appropriate YouTube video to watch. After watching, they discuss the video. That’s how her family discovered Steve Spangler Science. Isabella watches the videos or reads the books and then creates experiments.  She’s done exploding volcanos, non newtonian fluids, bacteria growth, experiments with balloons, how to extract chlorophyll from a leaf, the list is quite long.

“I guess, we saw a spark in her and we realized we had to feed that spark and help her grow,” added her mom.

This past school year, Isabella was in Pre-K and Puerto Rico experienced a tropical storm. To learn more about what she had experienced, Isabella researched how a storm forms, low pressure zones and centrifugal force. She gave a presentation to her class and shared what she had learned.

Isabella  had such a passion for science, she wanted to participate in the school science fair. The school did not allow Pre-K students to enter the fair.  Instead, her preschool teacher set up a science week. The Pre-K kids were able to share their science projects with their class and participate in some fun science-themed activities.

During the science week, their amazing teacher borrowed Isabella’s science books from Steve Spangler. The class performed some of Steve’s experiments including bubbles and Mentos and Diet Coke geysers. The teacher also lined up visits from real scientists like doctors and dentists.

A few of Isabella’s other science projects this year included a study of different types of combustibles and how they make things go. She also conducted an experiment on bacteria. She harvested bacteria from her fingernails, mucus, saliva and her dog’s saliva and allowed it to grow in petri dishes for a week. After a week, she added alcohol, hand sanitizer and hydrogen peroxide to the bacteria farm to see how it would kill the germs. Her results inspired her to start a campaign at her school to encourage hand washing, not biting fingernails and throwing used tissues in the trash.

Her mom, Isabel, says “to actually see the dirty bacteria growing makes it tangible and fun for her.”

Isabella also loves dinosaurs and animals of all kinds. Maybe she is a veteranarian in training?

Needless to say, Isabella’s parents are bursting with pride over their dynamo. Did we forget to mention she’s a well-rounded kid? Isabella is fluent in both English and Spanish, is learning to read, write and some basic math. She enjoys sports and art…she’s active in karate, ballet, drums and a veteran at her tennis club. If that isn’t enough, Isabella is also trying out for her swimming team. Because she is so young, if she makes the team, Isabella will be placed in a special group. She is determined to be the youngest member of the team.

This is one motivated kid! Her parents say they are enjoying every minute of their journey and work hard to juggle and make things work for their amazing daughter.