Fish Respiration

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Zev loves the bubbler in the fish tank. We have talked many times about how it’s dissolving oxygen into the water for the fish to breathe. We elaborated on that by reading a textbook diagram of fish breathing through gills and talking about how that compares to humans breathing. We watched a short video on YouTube about how gills work. Then we observed our minnows swim, specifically watching for them pushing water through their gills. For an art activity, I drew diagrams of fish, pointing out the operculum that covers the gills and named the types of fins.  After the kids colored their fish, I cut little slats in front of the mouth and at the operculum line. We pushed little blue pieces of paper in through the fish mouths and out through their gills, pretending that our fish were breathing.

The kids pretended to be fish swimming around and we sang a song (to the tune of Puff the Magic Dragon):
Puff the Magic Minnow lived in a tank.
He ate some plants and swam around,
and played with things that sank.

Materials – Paper (I used manilla envelopes, so they’d be a little sturdier and not rip), markers, strips of blue paper, diagram of fish gills or fish anatomy.




We made lab safety costumes with lab coats (old dress shirts) and goggles. We talked about lab safety and lab safety clothing.
We read the poem:
Little Willie was a Chemist,
Little Willie is no more.
What he thought was H2O was H2SO4.

We build a handful of small molecules, including H2O (water) and H2SO4 (sulferic acid). We talked about the lab equipment in An Introduction to Model Organisms, including lab notebooks, pipettes, PCR machines, centrifuges, squirt bottles, labeling tape, Kimwipes, microscopes and autoclaves.

The next day, while we drew with chalk (which is mostly calcium carbonate) outside Zev asked what it was made of so we talked about how calcium carbonate is ionic.

Materials – an organic chemistry model set, the poem Little Willie was a Chemist, chalk, dress shirts, goggles, plastic pipettes, and the tiny book An Introduction to Model Organisms.



We explored three different kinds of worms: Earthworms, Tubifex worms and Nematodes. The kids liked observing the earthworms, “wiggly worms”. They liked that the worms are basically food tubes that eat and then poop, which led to a discussion of decomposition and nutrient recycling. They observed that the you can see poop inside of the gastrointestinal tract of the partially transparent earthworms. The kids took toy annelids (snakes) all over the yard eating and pooping out worm castings. Zev observed that the toy snakes would be a better representation of segmented worms if they could stretch and compress themselves. Zev composed a song, “Worms have no eyes.” We crumbled up old leaves and a flower to feed to the pet earthworms. Each child was given a beaker with a ball of tubifex worms to observe. Cassandra got very attached to hers, and carried it around for a long time. We compared anatomy between annelids and nematodes.

Materials – Earthworms (bought from a garden store, stored in a tub of dirt in the backyard and fed old plant matter, we fed ours dried leaves from the yard, pea pods, and old flowers), Tubifex worms in water (from a pet store, stored in water in the fridge when not in use), old bowls and recycling containers, segmented toy snakes (from the art store).

We folded measuring distances into this game. It was fun to walk around the yard measuring things. We also drew worms in various media and practiced measuring them.

Materials – rulers (our favorites were made from popsicle sticks), chalk, lab notebook, markers.

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We actually did two beetle activities. First, we learned about the lifecycle of Darkling beetles, of which the larvae are called mealworms. Second, we released ladybugs in the yard and talked about predator-prey interactions.

We adopted mealworms a few weeks back, after a visit to the library where they had a live bat demonstration and Zev loved watching the bats munching mealworms. We were lucky to get one that had already pupated and when Cassandria came over one morning we noticed that it had just hatched into an adult beetle. Cassandria decided that it was the “Mommy beetle” and the others were babies. We spent a long time talking about beetle life cycles and the kids drew pictures of our pet darkling beetles as both larvae and adults. We fed them carrots and melon rind. We noticed how the larvae liked to make tunnels through the carrots and hind under the, now squishy, melon rid.

About a week later, we adopted the ladybugs. We released the lady bugs in the yard and observed their behavior as they crawled and flew away. I drew an anatomy diagram in chalk on the sidewalk next to us, and we talked about how beetles have hard elytra on top of their flying underwings. Then we all started drawing beetles. Once we had a whole long row of them in rainbow colors, the kids played ,“Hop Along the Beetles.”

Materials – Ladybugs (from a garden store), Mealworms (from a pet store), dirt, old plant matter (we used carrot and melon rind), ladybug stickers (art store), markers, chalk, library books about beetles.


Aquatic Plants

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We took a field trip to a garden store where we saw lily pads, bamboo, water hyacinth, and papyrus plants. We talked about the different strategies that the plants use to live in water such as: floats, roots that anchor, broad leaves with lots of surface tension, etc. We brought some water hyacinth home to add to our tank of minnows.

Materials – either none (if you want to just make it a field trip), or a few aquatic plants of whatever is available and a container of water.




Measuring Volumes of Slippery Algae:
We put water with a little food coloring into graduated cylinders and beakers. Zev poured and mixed them. We talked about measuring volumes, color mixing and the conservation of matter as the same volume would look taller in a narrower container than a low wide one. Zev decided they were red (Rhodophyta), blue (Cyanobacteria) and green algae (Chlorophyta). He put the fish tank bubbler into the various liquids to watch them bubble. He put samples under his microscope to see what they looked like magnified. (I used my cell phone to find images and quickly slide them underneath the platform with each corresponding sample description. We’ve replicated our experiment several times now with visiting scientist, Cassandria, with repeatable results.

Materials – plastic lab-ware, water, food coloring, lab notebook, markers and my cell phone. We also re-used a cardboard toy microscope that I’d made previously.

Our Results:IMG_20160903_132822977.jpg

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