Thursday, October 5, 2017

Epidemiologists: Saving Our Species with Science!

On Monday Oct. 2nd we had a visit from Pasadena's very own dedicated epidemiologist, Matthew Feaster of the Pasadena Public Health Department. He showed us what he does on a typical day, how he responds to reports of illnesses and severe symptoms, and uses math and a lot of interdisciplinary science to determine the cause of the disease. The information he gathers and the reports he creates help our Public Health Department to keep the public informed on how to stay safe, as well as helping them to know where to focus their resources for the prevention of the spread of those diseases.

If any of that went over your head or sounded boring, then I'm doing a bad job of conveying it--because this presentation was NOT boring! Everyone had such a blast and came away having learned a lot in the process. Matthew brought a book he created showing what he does and describing a hypothetical outbreak, and he asked the kids what questions they would ask the patient to determine the cause of the illness. He also introduced the kids to various "vectors" of disease--animals and foods that should be handled with care. For this he brought props and had volunteers help him introduce how each object or animal--like a hamburger, a rat or a bat--could carry disease. Kids learned a lot about the complexities involved in epidemiology too: they learned, for example, that sometimes food kept at a bad temperature will allow the growth of bacteria, but sometimes the food worker just isn't washing her hands well enough. He discussed with kids the important role that bats play in our ecosystem, eating many mosquitoes that could spread diseases, but that bats can also spread diseases like rabies when they bite humans. There are so many things that can go wrong and cause disease, but thanks to epidemiologists like Matthew, we know a lot about ways we can keep ourselves safe!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

STEAM Themed Crafts for Preschool Storytimes

Right now my library is working on a STEAM grant that we got for 2018, and one of my tasks to help the team is to gather up ideas for STEAM elements to be added to our rotating storyboxes. Storyboxes are bins that get sent weekly from one library branch to another, sharing books, DVDs, CDs, flannelboard sets, song lyrics and craft ideas around a theme. Librarians and techs use the materials in the boxes to put together their storytimes for the week. For 2018, we want our storyboxes to reflect our library's STEAM emphasis. So I'm working on finding ideas that librarians and tech specialists can use when putting their bins together.

Here's what I've got so far:

Seasons, Trees: Make Four Season Trees!

Sound: Paper cup string phone

Nutrition: Healthy Food Hunt and Paper Plate Collage

Wind: Paper Plate Wind Spinner

Weather: Make a Weather Mobile

Insects: Praying Mantis anatomy

Space: Alphabet Spaceship

Physics: Balloon Rockets
Just need a balloon, a straw, a string and some tape. Fill balloon with air, watch the force of air pushing out of the balloon cause the balloon to fly in the opposite direction. Shows Newton’s Third Law.

Static Electricity: Make a butterfly hug a balloon
Need tissue paper, regular paper, cardboard or cardstock, balloon, glue

Human Body: put parts where thye’re supposed to go on a large drawing of a body

Arachnids: make spiders with cupcake liners (or paper) and googly eyes and string

Crabs/Ocean Animals: Cupcake Liner Crabs

Jellyfish/Ocean: Paper Plate and String Jellyfish (you could also use strips of tissue paper)

If there is anything you think I am missing, please comment below! I'm looking for more ideas. Thanks!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Making Penny Batteries

On August 8th, we had a packed story room full of kids 7-12 years old who were here to learn about how electricity works, what kinds of materials conduct electricity, and how to make their own batteries. First, we viewed a slideshow that explained concepts like electric current (the movement of electrons from atom to atom) and the history behind the making of the first battery in 1800 by Alessandro Volta:

Then I gave everyone an envelope with some squares of matboard (like what artists use as the backing and framing for prints and drawings), an LED diode, and five pennies, two of which I sanded for each child in advance of the class. The kids had to sand two more pennies and leave the 5th penny alone, while letting the squares of matboard soak in some kind of solution.

Why sand the pennies? Because all pennies made after 1982 are made with mostly zinc and just a little bit of copper. Sand the copper off of one side, and you now have the two metals Volta used to make the first battery.

They could choose from several different solvents: baking soda (the best batteries had high baking soda content because of its high salt content), sugar (not as good), lemon juice, corn starch, Lawry's seasoned salt (not as salty as you might think), and other ingredients. By accident I left my bottle of vinegar; wish I had remembered it!

Why the salty solution? Because salt molecules help electrons to flow in a stronger current in water. Pure water (which doesn't exist) wouldn't conduct much electricity, but when those matboard squares are soaked in very salty water, the chemical foundation is there for a reaction to occur that will exchange electrons and make an electric current.

By sanding the pennies down on one side until their zinc centers showed, and stacking them with wet (but not drippy) matboard squares soaked in salty water, we were able to recreate Alessandro Volta's first battery, which he made from copper and zinc discs and cloth soaked in salty water, and generate enough electricity to light an LED.

Troubleshooting Tips

Trying this at home? Not everyone's batteries worked at our workshop, but here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Make sure you stack your pennies with the zinc side up, and top your pile with the unsanded penny (which has copper all around)

2. Make sure your pennies have been sanded all the way--you want your zinc side to have hardly a speck of copper left

3. Make sure the edges of your salty matboard squares are not touching. The battery's chemical electrical current can only be sustained if materials are alternating in the right order and not out of order, and not touching any other pieces.

4. Make sure your LED diode has the positive leg touching the top (unsanded penny) and the negative leg on the bottom. Both legs will be touching copper but the copper metals will be differently charged.

For more tips, check out the video at

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Solar System in Motion at Preschool Storytime

At my last preschool storytime we did a Moon theme, because of the upcoming eclipse. I found a lot of great ideas from Johnson County Library.  One of the cutest ideas they gave me turned out to be this activity acting out the solar system and singing about it. I caught it on video:

(tune: Farmer in the Dell)

The Earth turns around, the Earth turns around,
Once a day, every day, the Earth turns around.

The moon goes round the Earth, The moon goes round the Earth,
Once a month, every month,The moon goes round the Earth.

The Earth goes round the Sun, the Earth goes round the Sun,
Once a year, every year, The Earth goes round the Sun.

The stars are all around, The stars are all around,
Here to there, and everywhere, The stars are all around

My library is working on putting together at least 20 STEAM storytime themes and I can add this one to the mix. If your library has done any storytimes that have been really STEAM-related, please share!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Building Coding Skills with Robots and Monsters

Coming up on Tuesday, June 13th from 2-3:30 pm, the Pasadena Public Library will have our next Tablets and Tech program at the Central Library on our 4th floor. Kids will move around different iPad stations exploring a wide range of apps that incorporate accessories for tangible play. Kids will be using the passport below to assist them in taking turns to explore each app. 
Many of the apps have educational benefits for kids. Here I want to share the ones that focus especially on coding.

Osmo Games –

Osmo Game Systems use a mirror placed over the iPad’s camera to direct the iPad to process anything you do in front of it.
Osmo Coding:
Awby, a cute little monster who loves strawberries, needs your help to walk through the woods and get from one point to another. Using coding tiles in front of the iPad, tell him how many steps to go, when to turn, and develop a path that will get him the most yummy fruit!


Wonder Workshop –

Wonder Workshop apps control two kinds of robots, both of which we have: Dot, a robot with light and sound capabilities, and Dash, which has all those capabilities as well as a head that turns and wheels that move.
This is the game I recommend kids start with if they are using Dash or Dot, our robots. It takes you through simple coding challenges in a videogame format, acquainting you with the robot’s capabilities and with basic programming skills.

This is another beginning coding option for younger kids, giving you the ability to draw a path for Dash to follow, and insert instructions for Dash to perform along the way, such as changing his lights or making sounds.
An advanced option for older kids, this app lets you practice coding in a similar way to Scratch by letting you assemble instructions for Dash or Dot in order. It gives you the widest range of choices for controlling their motions, sounds, and lights.

We will be featuring lots of other Osmo and Wonder Workshop apps and accessories which encourage various other skills like imagination, spatial reasoning, phonics and spelling, art, and science. We did this program before on April 11 and had a great turnout. If you'd like to see more of our pictures or get descriptions of the other apps we're going to use, visit

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Make a Wind Generator

On May 19, 2017, kids came to the Pasadena Public Library to make wind turbines that would generate electricity by turning the shaft of a hobby motor. We were inspired by a project we found at The goal was to use the motors in reverse--instead of the electricity making the shaft turn, the turning would make electricity! We hoped to produce enough energy to light an LED bulb attached to the motor.

It didn't work out that way, but we still made a great science lesson of it. I provided several different motors, but every time I tested them myself, I could not get the LED light bulb to come on. One kind of motor I got at Fry's was just too strong to turn in the wind. It probably would have needed blades several feet long and a floor fan wasn't going to produce enough wind. The other kind turned easily, but didn't generate quite enough voltage.

(One of the kids accurately noted: "Don't you need more energy to operate the fan than you are generating with the motor?" Yes, you do... But it's not like the real wind turbines capture ALL of the energy in the wind--they capture what they can!)

So we had to compromise. I got a digital multimeter at Fry's, and with it we were able to get a better look at what kind of electrical output we were getting. We made blades attached to popsicle sticks which our library building & maintenance guy drilled holes into to fit the motor shaft. We made the blades out of paper cups and shaped them to be curved to pick up the wind and also allow some wind to pass over them--this creates the movement you need to turn the shaft.

Check out the video!

According to the multimeter, we only got between .2 and .3 V, but I tested the project the day before and was getting .5V. Definitely not enough for a light bulb, but still something.

Kids still learned a lot about electricity, energy and wind power! Here are the slides with the science information I presented:

We'll have another hands-on science program at the library on August 8th at 4:30 pm. The subject is still to be determined. It has been advertised as "Make a Wind Generator" but it's going to be something else. You will be able to call 626-744-4066 option 4 to sign up.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Light Bender

On Nov. 18, 2016, to celebrate Young Readers League and its 2016 selection of Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley, we had a science program called "Be a Light Bender!" We had a jam-packed hour of activities exploring the physics of light and color. We did demonstrations of various phenomena, like the phosphors in a highlighter pen's ink getting excited by the ultraviolet light from a black light, and a demonstration of why the sunset looks red (the light has to travel farther through the atmosphere). We experimented with color filters and then used our knowledge to create secret messages for others to decode. We used CD spectroscopes to analyze various different light bulbs. We examined the way shadows change color when you shine colored lights on an object. The resource I used the most for this program was Exploratorium's "Science Snacks" on the website It's a great site! Tons of experiments and activities with clear explanations and free videos. We didn't have time for the last experiment I planned, a demonstration of the inverse square law of light, but it is included in my slides. (Please note: when I upload my slides to slideshare a few of the fonts get distorted).

Monday, August 29, 2016

Building a Balanced Dinosaur

On Thursday, August 25th, while the rest of the library was closed early, kids and their parents were hanging out here in the children's Story Room learning about paleontology and center of gravity, and building their own dinosaurs!

I showed a slide show about how scientists' concepts of dinosaurs has changed over the years, particularly when we think about how a dinosaur would have stood or walked. Based on scientists' knowledge of anatomy and the weight of dinosaur bones, they've come to the conclusion that most dinosaurs had tails that stuck straight out, and provided balance while holding their heads and upper bodies in a forward (not upright!) position.

Then we took a wide variety of materials, including toilet paper tubes, cardboard, tape, plastic straws, pipe cleaners, and a few colorful and fun materials like feathers and googly eyes, and made dinosaurs that stood at least 6" tall with good balance.

Kids used counterweights and tried different design ideas to get their dinosaurs to stand stable. Sometimes they had to add weight to the head, or to the tail. Sometimes they had to make sturdier legs or hips.  They put a lot of thought into their work, as I hope our video shows:

From our photos you see kids had a wide range of design ideas, all of which worked splendidly!

It's easy to start learning and applying science and engineering concepts with the awesome website There are educational videos to teach the concepts behind each challenge, and all of the challenges are easy to do with materials you have around the house. Sign up and start creating!

Want to read more about dinosaurs? Check out these great books!

Feathered Dinosaurs by Thom & Laurie Holmes. Explores the connection between birds and dinosaurs, details the time and areas where these dinosaurs roamed, as well as what they ate and how they behaved, and discusses major related fossil discoveries.

Dino Wars by Jimmy Johnson. "Discover the deadliest dinosaurs, bloodiest battles, and super survival strategies of the prehistoric world"--Cover.

Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon.

Dinosaur by David Lambert (Eyewitness series). Discusses the environment in which dinosaurs lived, the characteristics of different types of dinosaurs, the disappearance of these creatures, and how scientists learn from their fossil remains.

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Brian Selznick. The true story of Victorian artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who built life-sized models of dinosaurs in the hope of educating the world about what these awe-inspiring ancient animals and what they were like.

Paleontologists and Archaeologists by Ruth Owen

How Big Were Dinosaurs? by Lita Judge. "Dinosaurs and modern life collide in a very young picture book that clearly illustrates how big dinosaurs really were"-- Provided by publisher.

Dinosaurs by Arnaud Plumeri (graphic novels with true facts). Paleontologist Indina Jones provides facts and uncovers mysteries about dinosaurs in this zany graphic novel.

Dinosaurs (World Book Encyclopedia) by Mike Benton. Introduces, in text and illustrations, the characteristics, habits, and natural environment of dinosaurs. Includes experiments and other activities.

Curious about Fossils by Kate Waters. Curious about Fossils explains why and where fossils form and looks at the colorful lives and important discoveries of some of the great early fossil hunters and collectors. Then the adventure continues into modern times, where scientists on fossil hunts in places like North Dakota's Hell Creek Formation use computers and other technology to dig up the fossilized bones, teeth, and even poop that provide clues to the past.

Did Dinosaurs Have Feathers? by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfield. Discusses the discovery and analysis of Archaeopteryx, a feathered dinosaur which may have been an ancestor of modern birds.

Collecting Fossils by Steve & Jane Parker. Presents information on how and where to find fossils, the preparation and tools needed for collecting them, and how to identify the various kinds: plant, invertebrate, and vertebrate.

Bizarre Dinosaurs by Christopher Sloan. Uses clear and informed text to tell readers what scientists know and what they are still guessing about a collection of odd-looking monsters, including how experts think these dinosaurs used their individual, bizarre characteristics.

Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs by Phillip Manning. This adult book was the main resource and inspiration for me while I was learning as much as I could so that I could present information about dinosaurs accurately.

Feathered Dinosaurs by Don Lessem.

We'll have another hands-on science program for tweens (8-12 years old) at Central Library on November 18, in a theme aligning with our Young Reader's League selection (to be announced soon!).

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Science at Storytime: A Preschool Planetarium

On Saturday, we had our library preschool storytime. I've been wanting to get out there and see the planets lined up in the pre-dawn sky, but I haven't been able to get myself up early enough. So I found another way to enjoy this phenomenon, and shared it with the preschoolers and their families at storytime.

Using one of the library's iPads, we turned the storyroom into a preschool planetarium! We have an app called SkyView which allows you to see the locations and images of stars, planets, galaxies, satellites and other celestial objects surrounding the Earth by simply pointing the iPad in any direction.

Why I decided to do this was so that the kids could see something that's probably very hard for them to see, and something they won't get another chance to witness for at least ten years! Currently, and for only a very limited time, all five visible planets are in the same part of our sky, and can be seen with the naked eye just before dawn. But since very few of us are actually up that early, especially preschoolers who need their sleep, I found another way to show them just how close the planets are to each other right now.

The kids each got to take the iPad, one by one, as I guided them from Jupiter to Mars to Saturn to Venus and Mercury. They saw how the planets all line up in the southeast part of the sky. They had a lot of fun with this! I love how iPads can give you an interesting hands-on way to learn about the universe.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Curiosity Machine: Magnet Structures

my sample   DSC_0989 DSC_0991

Everybody knows magnets are FUN, but did you know scientists use magnets when making certain kinds of polymers?  Did you know that magnets can help chemists to sort out the tangled mess of molecules that most polymers consist of?

Today's Curiosity Machine class focused on Making a Self-Assembling Structure using magnets, but the class wasn't just about magnets. One kind of self-assembling structure is a polymer, a long chain of repeating molecules that bind to create one super-strong molecule. We learned about polymers and a bit about atomic structure, then we turned our attention to magnets and to making our own structures that would link together using magnetic force.

First, watch this video to get the highlights of our class:

Here are my slides with recommended books for further reading:

Here are some of those books:


We had the table set up with dice of all kinds, pencils, paper, tape dispensers, and magnets:


Before starting, many kids drew out a map for their design, so that their magnets would link together properly using the property of magnetism that opposite poles attract:

DSC_0981 DSC_0982 DSC_0983 DSC_0984 DSC_0986

Here is one finished structure:

DSC_0988 DSC_0993 DSC_0994 DSC_0996 DSC_0997 DSC_0999 DSC_1001 DSC_1004 DSC_1007 DSC_1008

Check out the books from the slideshow for more information about, and cool experiments with, magnets and polymers!