writing science, history, and everything in between
My knees shake as I stand behind Poonlarb, a towering female Asian elephant who rocks back and forth while the veterinarian explains the procedure. I pull on a rubber glove that goes up to my armpit, and grease my entire hand and arm with a lubricant.
Taking an elephant’s temperature is one way the vet can assess the animal’s health, which is important at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) in Thailand where many of the elephants have been rescued from harsh lives hauling lumber, or begging on the busy streets of Bangkok. The GTAEF is one of many organizations struggling to protect abused, captive elephants, as well as educate people on the plight of the dwindling wild population. Loss of habitat and poaching for ivory has made the Asian elephant ten times more endangered than their big-eared African cousin.
When the vet hands me the thermometer, I laugh. I was expecting something…well… elephant-sized. But the thermometer is no bigger than the one I use at home. Protecting the glass tip with my finger, I ask Poonlarb if she’s ready, and inch my hand into her rectum. “More,” the vet says, and I reach further pushing up on my tip-toes. Poonlarb’s muscles gently contract around my arm. If the mahout (elephant handler) wasn’t holding her tail, this nearly two ton female could easily knock me off my feet with one swish. I rub Poonlarb’s rump, and assure her it will be over soon, but four minutes is a long time when you have your hand up an elephant’s backside.
I pull the thermometer out and hand it to the vet. “36.2 Celsius,” she says. “Normal.” That’s 97.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Poonlarb is one healthy elephant, and luckily for me, a patient patient.
To learn more about Asian elephants, click here to go to Think Elephants International
Peggy Thomas not only knows something of the anatomy of an elephant, but she knows the internal structure of nonfiction.
Peggy Thomas is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through FieldTripZoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. “How to Take an Elephant’s Temperature.” Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 23 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/how-to-take-an-elephants-temperature.
The "Julia Child" of kids' hands-on science.
How well do you handle spicy food? Do you find food with a “kick” eye-watering and difficult to swallow? Or are you a real “fire eater;” nothing can be too hot?
A scientist, named Wilbur Scoville, figured out how to rank spicy food for hotness in 1912. The “heat” from peppers comes from a chemical called capsaicin (cap-say-sin). Pure capsaicin registers 16 million heat units on the Scoville scale. Zero is a sweet green, red or yellow pepper. A fresh, green Jalapeño (ha-la-pen-yo) is rated 2,500-8,000 units, a lot less hot than pure capsaicin.
The fact is that you don’t “taste” the heat. The sensation of heat comes from nerve endings in your tongue that respond to pain. Of course, these nerve endings are not just in your tongue. They are all over your body. So a good scientific question is: Can you “taste” hot sauce with, say, your wrist?
Check it out. Rub the inside of your wrist with a cut Jalapeño pepper or some hot sauce. Wait a few minutes. Feel the burn? Rinse off your wrist well with cool water.
Your tongue, of course, is much more sensitive than your wrist to many chemicals because it is always wet. Capsaicin, like a lot of other chemicals dissolves in water and reaches those nerve endings more quickly.
Another liquid that triggers your pain nerves in your tongue is soda. The carbon dioxide in the bubbles reacts with an enzyme in your mouth to form a weak chemical called carbonic acid. This acid fires the pain nerve endings in your tongue giving soda its “bite.”
How well can you tolerate this pain? Stick your tongue into a freshly opened glass of soda and hold it there. See how long you can keep it in the drink. One minute? Two minutes? Most people can’t last a minute. But maybe you’re tougher than that.
Some Mexican parents give their kids mixtures of sugar and red chili powder when they’re little to build up their tolerance for spicy foods. Do you think that people who love spicy food could also be champions at keeping their tongues immersed in soda? Design an experiment to find out at your next party.
These videos were made from Vicki Cobb’s book We Dare You! She invites you to join her video project and make your own videos from her book and post them on the www.wedareyouvideos.com website.
Vicki Cobb is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Cobb, Vicki. "Some Painful Truth." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 17 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/some-painful-truth.
Sneed B. Collard III
"Connecting Scientists and Kids”
Only you can prevent forest fires! At least that’s what Smokey Bear taught me growing up. His message? All forest fires are bad, and we’re helping nature by putting them all out.
Recently, I met a scientist who’s made me rethink this negative message about natural wildfires. His name is Dick Hutto and he’s a biology professor at the University of Montana. “There are two kinds of fires,” Dick explains. “The ones that burn down your house or kill your neighbor are bad, bad, bad. The other ones can be the greatest things in the world.”
To prove his point, Dick took me to the Black Mountain burn area, near my home in Missoula, Montana. A severe forest fire burned through this area only ten years ago, and thousands of blackened trees still stand like sentries across the landscape. Surprisingly, this charred landscape explodes with life. Tens of thousands of new tree saplings reach for the sky. Elk and deer graze on the fresh grass growing in the newly-opened areas. More than anything, the songs of birds fill the burned forest.
In his research, in fact, Dick discovered that dozens of bird species love fresh burn areas. In the West, 15 bird species prefer burned forests to all other habitats! Woodpeckers pave the way. As soon as a forest burns, legions of wood-boring beetles descend on the forest and lay their eggs in the dead trees. Three-toed, Hairy, and Black-backed Woodpeckers follow and begin devouring the newly-hatched beetle grubs. They also chisel out their own nest holes—holes that are used by Mountain Bluebirds, American Robins, Black-capped Chickadees, and many other species. Because of burned forests, these birds find food and shelter. They also find safety. How?
Green forests abound with squirrels and chipmunks—animals that feast on bird eggs. A severe forest fire, though, clears out the small mammals. That means that birds can raise their young much more safely.
But listen, don’t take my word for it—or even Dick Hutto’s.
To learn more about the benefits of fire, throw a water bottle, lunch, a bird guide, and a pair of binoculars in your backpack and go visit a burn area for yourself. You will be astonished by what you see. Take a notebook or a camera along, too. Part of the fun of discovering our planet is sharing what you see. By doing so you’ll help others realize the importance of natural wildfires and burned forest—and help create a healthier, more interesting world.
Sneed Collard III has written a book about the birds that thrive in burn areas. Fire Birds shows how dozens of bird species not only survive, but actually thrive in burned areas, depending on burns to create a unique and essential habitat that cannot be generated any other way. If you would like more information, click here to go to Sneed's website. If you click the Study Guide tab, you will find a guide that's been prepared for this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Collard, Sneed B., III. Weblog post. Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 11 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/rethinking-smokey-bears-message.
STEM through the lens
In 1953, a scientist named Edmund Schulman discovered that bristlecone pines are the world’s oldest trees. They live high in the mountains—between 9,000 and 11,000 feet above sea level where the soil is rocky, the air is as dry as a desert, and the temperatures are extremely hot in summer and cold in winter. Most ancient bristlecones grow in California’s White Mountains and Nevada’s Snake Range, and scientists now know that some of these trees are more than 5,000 years old. They are the oldest known living things on the planet.
Edmund Schulman used a boring bit, a tool shaped like a drinking straw, to drill into old trees and pull pencil shaped pieces of wood called cores out of the trunks of very old trees. Cores contain patterns of stripes. One stripe represents one year of growth. Schulman counted more than 4,600 stripes from a tree he named Methuselah--after the oldest man in the Bible.
Today, the Methuselah Tree’s exact location is kept secret to protect it from too many visitors. Like all ancient bristlecone pines, Methuselah’s annual growth rings contain secrets spanning thousands of years—secrets that are being discovered by scientists who know how to “read” tree rings. Rainfall, fires, volcanoes, droughts, and climate changes, are literally recorded in the growth rings.
In the summer of 2011, I went searching for Methuselah. I brought along my camera. Although I am not a tree-ring scientist, I did my own research using my five senses. I tasted the pitch and pollen from cones (it was a little bit bitter); smelled the bark (it smelled like rain); touched wind sculpted and sun bleached wood surfaces (it was smooth and grooved); listened to the sound created when I tapped the rock-hard wood (it was sharp and short); and I was amazed by their strange forms and colors (they looked like dancers).
Did I find Methuselah during my adventure? Actually, when I stopped searching,Methuselah found me. I will share that story along with a lot of science, in the book I am writing. But I won’t publish Methuselah’s photo or location. Some things must be kept secret.
Alexandra Siy says, "I write books that put the "A" into STEM! Reading about science should be as creative and fun as doing science. Science is not simply information and facts--it's about questions, exploration, and the process of discovery. My books are illustrated with real scientific images that bring alive the stories that inspire kids to think like scientists! " If you would like to know about some of her award-winning books, click here.
Alexandra Siy is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Siy, Alexandra. "The Oldest Tree on Earth." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 10 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-oldest-trees-on-earth.
Alligators are one of the world’s most feared predators. With rows of dagger-sharp teeth, a muscled reptilian body, a dinosaur face and eyes, alligators frighten yet fascinate people. Scientists are working hard to understand this modern-day reptile.
Dr. Daphne Soares, biology professor at the University of Maryland, was intrigued by the hunting ability of the alligator. She knew alligators have keen eyesight and excellent hearing but there was something else that made them such efficient predators, the king of the swamp. Careful focus on the dark bumps all over the animal’s upper and lower jaws led her to conclude that these bumps “were very sensitive tactile organs that can detect ripples in the water.” The ability to feel waves or ripples is one of the many features that makes the alligator an excellent predator. Once the alligator detects ripples, it swims swiftly and silently in the direction of the prey.
Alligators are carnivores. They seize and hold their prey with sharp teeth. Small quarry, such as fish and ducks, are swallowed hold. Larger victims are shaken apart into smaller, bite size pieces. Gators have between 74 and 80 teeth in the jaws at a time. When their teeth get worn down, they are replaced with new ones. Imagine that! No need for a dentist. Alligators can go through 2,000 to 3,000 teeth in a lifetime.
Alligators are a rare success story of an endangered species saved from the brink of extinction. As late as 1950s, alligators were hunted for meat and hide. They were placed on the Endangered Species list in 1967, and now thrive in the freshwater swamps and wetlands of the southeastern United States.
A smiling American Alligator displaying the bumps around its upper and lower jaws.
Steve wrote, Sea Turtle Scientist after spending time with Dr. Kimberly Stewart, “the turtle lady,” and describes her work on St. Kitts with endangered loggerhead sea turtles.
Steve is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Swinburne, Stephen R. "Alligator Smiles." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 29 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/alligator-smiles.
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