Homeschooling Corner: Science (geology and geography)

 

I have yet to find any “science kits” that actually teach science–most are just science-themed toys. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t expect your kid to re-derive the principles of chemistry via a baking soda volcano.

Smaller kids aren’t ready for the kind of thinking required for actual scientific research, but they can still learn plenty of science the mundane way: by reading. So here are some of our favorite science books/activities:

We did geology over the winter, centered around Rocks, Rivers, and the Changing Earth. It’s a lovely book (reading level about second grade?) with instructions for many simple experiments (eg, put rocks, sand, water in a glass jar and carefully shake/swirl to observe the effects of different water speeds on riverbanks) and handily complements any nature walks, rock collecting trip, or expeditions to the seashore.

WARNING: This book was published before plate tectonics became widely accepted and so has a confused chapter or two on how mountains form. SKIP THIS CHAPTER.

We also tried making polished stones in a rock tumbler (verdict: not worth the cost.)

After geology, we transitioned to geography with A Child’s Introduction to the World: Geography, Cultures and People–from the Grand Canyon to the Great Wall of China. I admit that geography sounds more like social studies than science, but it flows so perfectly from our understanding of geology that I have to mention it here.

I like to read this with a globe and children’s atlas at hand, so I can easily demonstrate things like latitude and longitude, distances, and different map projections.

With spring’s arrival we also began a study of plants and insects.

If you’ve never started your own plants from seed, any common crop seeds sold at the store–beans, peas, corn, squash, and most flowers–will sprout quickly and easily. If you want to keep your plants indoors, I recommend you get a bag of dirt at the garden center. This dirt is supposed to be “clean”; the dirt found outside in your yard is full of bugs that you probably weren’t intending on studying in your living room.

Speaking of bugs, we bought the “raise your own ladybugs” and butterflies kits, but I don’t recommend these as real caterpillars are nowhere near as cute and interesting as the very hungry one in the story. I think you’re better off just collecting ladybugs in the wild and reading about them at home.

The Way Things Work (also by this author: How Machines Work: Zoo Break) This is a big, beautiful book aimed at older kids, maybe about 10+. Younger kids can enjoy it if you read it with them.

Super Science: Matter Matters is a fabulous pop-up/lift-the-flap book about chemistry. We were very lucky to receive this as a birthday gift. (Birthday hint: the homeschooling families in your life would always like more books.) The book is a little fragile, so not appropriate for younger children who might pull too hard on the tabs, but great for everyone else.

Magic Schoolbus anything. There are probably several hundred books in this series by now. Who Was Albert Einstein? We finished our math biographies, so on to science bios. Basher Science: Astronomy  This is cute, and there are a bunch in the series. I’m looking forward to the rest. Professor Astro Cat‘s Atomic Adventure (also, Space!)

Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Gardening

So you want to grow a garden, but you have a serious black thumb. You’ve killed cactuses. You plant seeds, but they don’t come up. Your tomatoes rot on the vine before they ripen. Luckily for you, I’ve put together this handy absolute beginner’s guide to gardening.

  1. Have you considered growing weeds?

I’m serious.

Okay, half serious.

Take a good look at what grows well in your area, particularly in your yard and neighborhood. Mint dies in my neighborhood but bulbs grow well; at a friend’s house some 20 miles away, mint grows rampant but bulbs die. Do you live in a wooded area with lots of pines, or a dry area with succulents and cacti? Do strawberries grow wild in your yard?

If you see a flower or plant you love growing wild near your house, chances are good it will grow in your yard. If you can just dig it up and take it home without running afoul of the law, go ahead! If not, take a couple of good picture of it and take the pictures to your local garden store. While you’re there, ask the employees what they recommend for your area.

(Note: I’m pretty sure that most big-box stores that sell plants, like Walmart or Lowes, sell similar plants all over the country. These are kind of generic and will probably work fine in your area, but if you want local plant varieties that may be better adapted to your area, try a local garden store.)

The most successful plants in my garden are actually plants I found growing “wild” in the area–a couple of domesticated plants that were growing so abundantly they had escaped their original garden and the gardener was fine with me digging up and taking home the shoots that were cluttering up her yard and some wild flowers I liked. These hardy plants have survived and thrived despite, in one case, being nearly murdered in the process of tearing it out the anti-weed mesh it was growing in.

    2. Now take a good look at your microclimate–the specific place where you are trying to grow plants.

Are you putting potted plants on a cement porch with no shade in front of a glass door, where they’re going to get direct and reflected sunlight all day? Temperatures here can easily reach 100 degrees every day. Or are you trying to grow plants in the shade under a large tree, where the ground is always damp and they receive no direct sunlight? You can easily have both microclimates in the same yard, and the plants that grow well in one spot definitely won’t grow well in the other. If you’re confined to gardening in an ultra-sunny location, you’ll need heat and drought-tolerant plants. If you’re gardening in the shade, look for shade-tolerant plants.

In my experience, fruits won’t ripen in the shade. I’ve grown plenty of strawberry, tomato, and pumpkin plants in the shade, (strawberries make a lovely, shade-tolerant groundcover,) and never gotten a single decent fruit off of them. My tomatoes, yes, rotted before they ripened.

It’s okay. I don’t even like fresh tomatoes. I was just growing them because everyone else does.

I can get fruit to ripen on the sunny side of the house. I’ve gotten lots of tasty fruit on the sunny side of the house. Unfortunately that’s the patio side, so everything there has to be grown in pots and watered often because they dry out quickly.

I have had luck, however, growing some vegetables in the shade.

C’est la vie!

    3. Start small, simple, and easy.

Some plants grow easily and will work almost anywhere. Peas, for example, have never failed me, whether planted in way too hot, dry, dusty soil or in a pot in the shade. Soy beans and regular beans grow well, too. (And personally, I like the taste.)

By contrast, some seeds come with a list of instructions six months long:

“Put these seeds in a container of sterile sand in your refrigerator for 3 months. Mist them once a week so they don’t dry out, but don’t get them wet. Then warm them up slowly. Put them in a container with sandpaper and shake them, and if that doesn’t work, nick them with a knife. Then plant them 1/4 inch deep in a mix of 1 part peat moss, 1 part sterile potting mix, and 1 part sand. Water once a day for 3 months, until you give up and plant peas instead.”

You see, some seeds are designed by nature to just fall on the ground and start growing; some seeds are designed to get eaten, pass through a digestive tract without getting destroyed, and then sprout; and some seeds are designed to sit around all winter until they sprout in the spring. You want the first kind of seeds. If you really want a plant grown from more difficult seeds, just go buy a plant. Trust me, it’s better to spend $8 on one plant that’s actually alive than $4 on 30 seeds that won’t grow.

While we’re on the subject of seeds that don’t grow, remember that unlike people, most plants produce hundreds or thousands of seeds during their lives. Obviously not all of these seeds can possibly turn into new plants. So if some of your seeds didn’t sprout, remember that the average tree sends out thousands of seeds that don’t sprout, either. So don’t feel bad! You probably still have a better success rate than nature!

Some plants don’t even like using seeds. Strawberries prefer to propagate via runners (which is why they make such nice groundcover.)

Additionally, some plants will live for years, while others live for only a season and then pass away.

If your plants keep dying, you might have annuals! They’re supposed to do that.

If you enjoy digging in the dirt and want an excuse to get outside more often, plant annuals. Annuals tend to grow quickly and look nice right away–lots of pretty flowers are annuals. If you get lucky, they might even sow their seeds in your garden, resulting in new flowers popping up next year, but there’s no guarantee.

If you want a garden that will keep going without you having to start over from scratch every year, plant perennials. I’m lazy, so I have perennials. (Except the peas.)

Perennials can take a while to get going. For example, while your peas might be ready to harvest after a mere two months in the ground, asparagus takes 2 to 4 years to develop. But once you do have a mature plant, you can harvest it every year for decades. Apple trees take 4+ years to mature, but again, last for decades. (There’s an apple tree in Germany that’s 185 years old.)

By the way, you might think cactuses and succulents are the easiest plants to grow, but my cactuses always die. Always. I am the cactus murderer. I don’t know. I over-water them or something.

    ETA: 3B. Start seeds in pots:

This has become such an established part of my gardening routine that I nearly forgot how much I struggled before I figured it out: sow your seeds in small pots, not directly into the ground.

I don’t know why it works, but I have spent years watering long rows of flower seeds I planted directly in my garden, only to get nothing in return. (Except weeds. Lots of weeds.) By contrast, when I start seeds in pots, at least some of them almost always come up. They are much more convenient, as well, because I can keep all of the little pots together on one rack on the porch and water them all at once rather than hauling the hose up and down the garden, and if you have one set of pots positioned above another set, water from the first group can drip down and water the second.

When the plants get big enough, (about the same size as the ones growing in similar pots in the garden store if you have one per pot,) transfer them to the ground.

Speaking of which:

    4. Dirt, water, and fertilizer.

You probably know all about these already, but remember that plants like dirt with plenty of nutrients. If your dirt is bad, you’ll need to fertilize. If things have been growing in your garden for a while, you’ll need to fertilize. If you want to grow corn, you’ll need to fertilize.

But… like everything, there’s too much of a good thing, and you can over-fertilize plants. Each plant has its own needs, so read up on the plants you have.

        5. What if I’ve done everything right, and my plants are still producing mealy, unpleasant fruit?

 

The plants/seeds sold at garden stores, nurseries, Walmart, etc., have been optimized for all sorts of traits, like fast growth, attractive leaves, beautiful flowers, pest resistance, ease of sprouting, etc. Some of them have been bred to taste good, but plenty of them haven’t–honestly, I’ve been surprised at what a high percent of fruit plants sold at regular stores actually produce totally inferior, unpleasant-tasting fruits.

If your plants aren’t making tasty fruit, it might not be your fault at all. You may have to experiment with several different varieties before you find one you like, or do some research into the best varieties for your region. This year I ended up mail-ordering a specific variety of fruit plants that are supposed to be tasty and grow well in my area, but aren’t available at my local big-box garden store. (Probably because they’re a local variety and I hear they have some issues with pest resistance/rot.) Wish me luck.

Just like the seeds, don’t get discouraged if your first few plants don’t work out. Plants are dynamic. They grow, flower, seed, wither, and start again. If one thing doesn’t work, try something else. Remember, humans have been growing plants for 10,000 years, and it has generally worked out well.

So that’s my absolute newbies’ guide to growing plants. I hope it helps.

Rafflesia: the Parasitic Flowers of Breath of the Wild

Let’s consider the similarities between the fairy fountains found in Nintendo’s new Legend of Zelda installment, Breath of the Wild, and the enormous blooms of our terrestrial Rafflesia genus.

Rafflesia Arnoldii hold the record for world’s largest flowers, growing regularly to a width of 3 feet and weighing up to 24 pounds. Their central chamber is large enough to put a baby in, if you aren’t too perturbed by their odd spiky structures and horrific smell.

The Fairy Fountain is obviously the largest flower in Breath of the Wild and has a central chamber similar to Rafflesia’s; an enormous fairy woman lives inside.

Rafflesia is a parasitic plant which actually has no stems, leaves, roots, or even chlorophyll! (This has made tracing its genetic relationships to other plants difficult for scientists, because most of what we know about plant relationships is based off comparing differences in their chlorophyll’s DNA.) The only visible parts of the plant are its buds and, subsequently, the flowers they open into.

Likewise, the Fairy Fountain has no leaves, stems, or other visible plant parts–it is just a bud that opens into a flower. (However, the fairy fountain bud is green. Perhaps it would have looked too much like a giant nut if it were brown like the true Rafflesia.)

The rest of Rafflesia’s structure is hidden within the vines it parasitizes. When not in bloom, it’s just a network within the vine, just as a mushroom’s principle structures lie hidden within the ground or rotting logs.

The Fairy Fountain is surrounded by mushrooms, which suggest their similarity to the fountain’s hidden structure.

Rafflesia’s enormous size is due to the fact that it is pollinated by carrion flies, who are attracted to the largest carcasses they can find. Unfortunately, this also means that Rafflesia smells like rotting meat, earning it various unsavory names like “corpse flower.” It also possesses the remarkable ability to generate heat, creating a warm, comfortable environment for flies to congregate in.

In Breath of the Wild, the Fairy Fountain is also home to flies, though these are thankfully the much less smelly, tiny winged fairy kind.

What about pollen? According to Harvard Magazine:

“The pollen is incredible,” Davis continues. In most plants, the pollen is powdery, but in Rafflesia, it is “produced as a massive quantity of viscous fluid, sort of like snot, that dries on the backs of these flies—and presumably remains viable for quite a long time,” perhaps weeks. In their pollinating efforts, the flies may travel as much as 12 to 14 miles.

I don’t have a very good sense of scale in Breath of the Wild, but 12 or 14 miles between Fairy Fountains sounds about right. By picking up fairies at one fountain and carrying them to the next, Link is helping this likely endangered Hylian species reproduce.

Likewise, the center of the enormous Fairy Fountains is filled not with powder, but some kind of… liquid.

Flower snot.

Or it might just be water:

Vines move massive quantities of water, which may be one of the physiological reasons that Rafflesia colonize them, he explains. The flowers, which to the touch are like “a Nerf football that is wet,” are mostly water themselves, and the exponential growth of the blooms in the final stages of development is made possible “primarily by pumping massive quantities of water into the flower.”

That’s a lot like what I imagine the Fairy Fountain would feel like, too.

But the really interesting thing about Rafflesia is their genes:

Given his mandate to establish a phylogeny for the order Malpighiales, Davis set out, dutifully, to duplicate the published result for Rafflesia. What he found was not just unexpected. It absolutely astounded him. Some of the genes he sequenced confirmed that Rafflesia were indeed part of Malpighiales—but other sequenced genes placed them in an entirely different order (Vitales)—with their host plants. Davis had stumbled upon a case of massive horizontal gene transfer, the exchange of genetic information between two organisms without sex. …

The work is also facilitating the identification of Rafflesia’s past hosts, since many of the transgenes Davis found came from lineages of plants other than Tetrastigma, the current host. These ancient parasite/host associations, a kind of molecular fossil record, could be used to elucidate the timing and origin of plant parasitism itself.

Davis found that the host plant contributed about 2 percent to 3 percent of Rafflesia’s expressed nuclear genome (genes in the cell nucleus), and as much as 50 percent of its mitochondrial genome (genes that govern energy production). The sheer scale of the transfer was so far-fetched, his collaborator at the time at first didn’t believe that the findings could be accurate. The paper, published in 2012, demonstrated that intimate host/parasite connections are potentially an important means by which horizontal gene transfers can occur. And it showed that the physiological invisibility of Rafflesia within the host is echoed in its genes: the host and parasite share so much biology that the boundaries between them have become blurred.

Intriguingly, some of the transferred genes swap in at precisely the same genetic location as in the parasite’s own genome. “One of the ideas that we are exploring,” says Davis, “is whether maintaining these transferred genes might provide a fitness advantage for the parasite. Might these transfers be providing a kind of genetic camouflage so that the host can’t mount an immune response to the parasite that lives within it?”

And finally, Rafflesia flowers and the Fairy Fountain are basically the same color: both are both reddish with white mottling.