Monday, May 17, 2010

Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick: The Quills of Prickly Porky

This is the first of many (we hope!) monthly guest blogs from Twig Walkingstick. When not on vacation, Twig lives in and around the Wooster campus of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. His alter ego is Kurt Knebusch, one of our super-talented writers and editors on campus. Each month, look for Twig to answer a reader questions and some additional interesting facts below. After Twig's post, we will be providing some ideas and suggestions on how to incorporate the info in Twig's column into fun science learning for your students and children.

Q. Dear Twig: Why don’t porcupines stick to things? All those pointy quills and all ...
A. First, the quills (“kwills”) on a porcupine mostly point backward. So when a porcupine climbs up a tree, for example, its quills don’t aim forward and poke into things by mistake. Like branches, tree trunks or the back ends of bears.

Second, besides pointing backward, the quills also usually lie flat, near the body. This cuts down on the chance of accidents too. The quills do stick up when a porky feels threatened. Maybe a wolf or a dog tries to bother it. The stuck-up, stuck-out quills serve as protection. Special muscles around each quill pull tight and make the quill stand up.

Third, if the stuck-up, stuck-out quills do get stuck into something, like the nose of a dog or the snout of a wolf, they dislodge — come loose — from the porky very easily. This lets the porcupine get away — not stay stuck — while the predator deals with a snootful of quills.


P.S. Porcupines can’t throw their quills. Nor shoot them. And the quills aren’t poisonous.

Notes from Twig: 
  • The quills of the North American porcupine are barbed, hollow, modified hairs. A porcupine has about 30,000 of them.
  • Scientists call the muscles that make quills stand up “piloerectors,” while a special quill-holding skin part called the “spool” lets stuck-up, poked-into-something quills pull loose much more easily than relaxed ones do.
  • Sources included “A Facilitated Release Mechanism for Quills of the North American Porcupine” by Uldis Roze, Queens College, New York, in Journal of Mammalogy, 2002; and “Smart Weapons” by Roze in Natural History, 2006.
  • Twig has been vacationing in a place where porcupines live but hasn’t, unfortunately, run into any.

Using this information for education:
Right about now, families across the country are planning their summer vacations or are looking forward the vacations they already have planned. Students may not be in school during the summer, but that doesn't mean they should pass up the opportunity to make learning on their vacation!

If you're planning a trip this summer, whether across the country, camping, to the beach, or even to your local zoo, take the time to learn about the animals and wildlife that are native to the area you'll be visiting. Almost every species has fun facts about its members that will amaze and astound your friends and family.

Learning more about the animal sciences can lead to lots of great educational discussions about habitat, animal adaptations, food chains and more.  So go on and have fun on your vacation this summer, but take the time to teach and learn a little, too! 

Monday, May 10, 2010

Making ethanol in the kitchen?

Now I'm not advocating that you put the end product of this experiment in your car. In fact, I strongly recommend against it....what you'll end up with is no where near pure enough or concentrated enough to run in your engines. But what this fun experiment is sure to do is get your kids' excitement level all fueled up!

So here's the scoop: biofuels and green energy are everywhere these days....and for good reason! First, biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel are renewable. Secondly, the can be made and processed right here in the U.S., creating U.S. jobs. And thirdly, they are cleaner for the environment.  But did you know biofuels like ethanol are not new technology to the automobile industry? Henry Ford developed the first flex-fuel vehicle. You may have heard of it before: it was the Model T.

Curious about how ethanol is made? Here's a short (less than 4 minutes) video explaining the process.
GM also has a cool little interactive graphic on the process, too.

But back to the task at hand: did you know your students can make their own ethanol using common household kitchen items? We've done this activity with numerous groups on our Wooster campus and with schools across the state. We like using General Motors' No Fossils in this Fuel lesson plan as a basis. It is a free download and comes with both a teacher and student guide, links to additional resources, history of ethanol and lots of other cool information on the history of ethanol and the automobile industry.

So here's what you need:
  • 1 package of yeast
  • Water
  • Corn syrup
  • Empty, cleaned, label-free 2-liter plastic bottles
  • Ballon (pre-stretched works best)
  • Funnel measuring spoons and cups
  • Sink or bucket
  • Rubber gloves

Here's what you do:
  1. Add 2 cups warm water and package of yeast to empty bottle using funnel.
  2. Swish to mix ingredients and record observations.
  3. Using the funnel again, add 1/4 cup of corn syrup and mix again.
  4. Stretch the deflated balloon over the top of the bottle and place the bottle in a sink or a bucket. (Now we've never had any problems with leaks or explosions when we've just placed the bottles on a countertop, but the instructions say a sink or bucket....and it's always a good idea to follow instructiosn precisely when conducting an experiment.)
  5. Observe and record your observations.
  6. Check after 1 hour. Observe and record observations again.
  7. Repeat observations and recordings after 2 hours.
  8. Repeat observations and recordings after 24 hours.
  9. It will take 24-48 hours for the experiment to complete. When you are finished, pour the contents down the sink using rubber gloves.

So what happens? Simple fermentation. The corn syrup (representing the starch from the corn that is primarily used in the United States to make ethanol) is broken down into ethanol and carbon dioxide (that's what it filling and inflating the balloon). You end up with a mix of about 13 percent ethanol.

So try this at home and have fun with it...and let us know what you think!

And one other cool fact? OARDC researchers are partnering on an Ohio Third Frontier grant to use Russian dandelions as a source of natural rubber and ethanol!
Learn more here.

 All Thingz Related Summer Fun

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bringing buggy books to life

One of the things we love to do is get kids excited about all kinds of science. And one sure-fire hit with kids is bugs. Love 'em or hate 'em (and most kids are in the love category....way more than the adults), insects and their relatives are sure to get a reaction from almost anyone.

Here at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center's Wooster campus, we are blessed with a fun, fabulous and FREE Bug Zoo. If you've never been, it's a treat. All kinds of creepy-crawlies to learn about, touch and some fabulously huge arthropod props mounted to the wall our Bug Zoo caretaker Miss Judy managed to track down. It's awesome.

But obviously, not everyone is blessed to have such a resource in their home or classroom (as many of you are thinking, "Thank goodness!"). So books become a great resource for teaching kids about the science of insects. Bonus? It also helps kids get excited about reading, and bug books can be really fun non-fiction books for kids to enjoy.

One service we offer is making trips to schools who are unable to visit our campus in person because of financial or distance issues, either through our OARDC on the Road program or through our Guest Reader program. We love to read! One of our favorite books to take is My Book of Bugs. What makes it fun is that the book is only one small part of our magic box:

In addition to the book, which we definitely enjoy reading with the kids, we've also scoured convenience store bargains and our insect archive collection (not to mention our native environment: the fabulous outdoors). To find examples of the insects discussed in My Book of Bugs.

For example:
Many of these much larger than life insect models (all of which are discussed in the book) can be readily found at your local dollar or convenience store/ In fact, Target has a fabulous little collection in their dollar bins this spring, including models like these, the spongy-capsules that "grow" into insects in water and some basic bug-hunting supplies. These are great, especially if you are leery of real-life insects or you have some kids that aren't sure about the whole bug thing. The key is, the kids get their cues from you, the adult. If you are freaked out by the real-life insects, they will be, too. If you act like they are cool (even if that's not what you're really thinking), the kids will, too.

We add to that some mounted species. This is excellent for kids, because in our experience kids tend to have a lot of difficulty distinguishing the difference between "real" and "dead." I like to say these bugs are "real dead." Did you think it was funny? The kids don't normally laugh's OK. For example, we bring along this mounted Atlas Moth:

And finally, what really makes this a fund experience for the kids is bringing along some real-life critters. You can find some of these locally on your own, like these crickets:

They're just super-excited to be out and about on classroom visits. Each day they spend outside the Bug Zoo is one less day they have to worry about Miss Judy feeding them to the bigger buggies. Oops! I hope they didn't hear that!

And finally, we do have in our arsenal a couple of things the average parent or teacher is not going to be able to readily put their hands on:

Recognize them? Yep, these are Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches...the very same kind made famous on Fear Factor when people would lay with them or even eat them. None of that goes on during my watch.....ick.

Besides, we have other programs during the year for eating bugs.....

But we'll save the deatils of A Bug's World for another post another time...

 All Thingz Related Summer Fun
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