Mini-Marine Lab (now updating on Fridays)

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Zev, his friends and I have started a backyard game we call Mini Marine Lab, modeled after our visit to the Seymour Center at Long Marine Labs (  Mostly the game is a context for exploring things, like measuring and anatomy. It’s made-up of old stuff I found around our house and dumped in a pile on my tiny back patio, like: a few old tanks from our garage, library books, and odds and ends of art supplies. The kids love this game, and it’s a kind of science-art project, so I’ve decided to share it here.

It started because… a few days after our visit to Long Marine Labs, Zev and I spent a whole morning pretending to care for animals that we’d met at the lab, especially baby swell sharks. Zev (currently 2.5 years old) was also excited and talking about measuring things, but he kept confusing length, volume and weight units.

We took a trip to the pet store to visit the animals, ostensibly to buy a bubbler for my little aquarist. Zev loved the minnows in a school. It was a very practical choice. We bought a small school, and he cuddled them home in their bag. After a nap and another chocolate cupcake, we set up Mini Marine Lab in the backyard. He now has his own tank of rosy minnows with a filter and bubbler that he can play with. We also bought some lab note taking tools so that he can record his observations. The protractor, compass and pencil sharpener were the evenings favorites. He chose a nice red set for his first geometry/measuring tools.

As a little background: I used to design science curriculum to tie into children films for a film studio in Hollywood. It was a frustrating job. Amongst other things, I was told that ‘photosynthesis’ was too big a word for a 5th grader. I loathe the dumbing down of our educational system, so I may have accidentally taken it as sort of a dare. My two year old knows what Rhodophyta is, and can remind me when I forget. That’s not accidental.

Also, my mother is a science teacher too. I started assisting her in her classroom at three, and when she went back to graduate school when I was eight, I went with her. I wrote papers and presented them in class too. My mothers old kitchen table (which is now ours) is a lab bench, and she regularly brought home toys like bunsen burners for kitchen flame tests. My mother used to keep hibernating ants in the fridge and if an animal died in our yard she’d bring home a dissection kit.

I think that it’s important to note that these games are child-led. I do not create them in advance. I listen while he plays and these are very lightly structured activities that match his interests and questions. I provide additional information as it seems helpful (usually by frantically googling things on my phone, like every other parent).

Science is all about making observations and recording them. The scientific method is making hypotheses, testing them and then communicating results. So, Zev and I make observations and record them in our lab notebook and them we share them with Daddy at dinnertime. I’ll be providing examples of activities, but they are not meant to replace personal experiments or observations. I strongly suggest that you create your own Mini-Marine Lab games based on the interests and questions that you and your family have. These are intended as examples of neat ways to play with science as an engaging activity. The following are a few examples of the kinds of play that Mini-Marine Lab has included in our house over the last few months. As we share our experiments, I’d like to encourage you to conduct your own! At the end of our game Mini-Marine Lab (in about 8 weeks), I’ll post an assortment of everyone’s results. I look forward to seeing what everyone comes up with!

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Nearly a year ago, I wrote and illustrated An Introduction to Model Organisms, a silly first look at a few of the most broadly studied model organisms in genetics. I’m very pleased to finally share it in a format that you can play with. It’s a tiny book, printed from a single sheet of paper. I’m attaching it in two different formats…

Here is is in a PDF form that you can flip through on a monitor: model-organism-book-copy

Or if you’d like a printed copy, these files are printable. (Print it on a single sheet of paper, double-sided, cut the three sections lengthwise and sample them in the center fold.) model-organisms

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I taught a lesson on scratch-board, charcoal and carbon dust this week. If you haven’t played with any of these media recently, I’d recommend it. We had a lot of fun. Here’s my finished Motor Light Machine (inspired by a description from Zev, and partially illustrated by him as well. Note, the background pencil doodles). The color was dropped in digitally.

We used the students finished art to make stickers, extending the lesson into digitizing traditional media and digital coloring. We printed them through Now, we have silly stickers ready for the beginning of the new school year.

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Today was the first day of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators ( meeting. There was portfolio sharing and visiting with old friends. I got a few requests to re-post a few favorite printable, shareable pieces of art. If you want copies, here you go:

Hey Look! A Dandelion! (

Cuddly toy Nautilus (

Ctenophora fabrics (