Posted in learning together

learning together: erupting citrus!

Inspired by one of Limerick’s class experiments at our co-op, we spent an afternoon watching baking soda and citric acid react explosively in our kitchen 🙂

Limerick applying the baking soda to the lemon! (and his shirt, lol)

One thing I really liked about the way his co-op teacher presented the baking soda/lemon juice reaction was that she asked a lot of questions designed to help the kids come up with hypotheses and logically critique those hypotheses. Each lemon volcano had three components: the lemon, the food coloring (to make it look more like lava!), and the baking soda. So she asked them what they thought made the eruption happen, for example, and when a lot of the kids said the baking soda, she pointed out that the baking soda wasn’t making fizzy bubbles when it was all by itself in the bowl!

Limerick at co-op, right after adding the baking soda to his lemons.

So when we replicated and expanded upon the experiment at home (Rowan was so jealous that Limerick got to do it at co-op and he didn’t!), I tried to ask similar leading questions. We also decided to test other citrus fruits with the same reaction, so I had the kids think about the differences between the fruits and guess which would make the biggest reaction beforehand, so we could compare our hypotheses with our results.

To my surprise, the two types of oranges we tested had drastically different results. The big navel orange was even less reactive than I’d expected, while the small juicing orange was almost as explosive as the lemon! The grapefruits were also quite dramatic, being overripe and thus extremely juicy and very fun to squeeze everywhere to create great “lava flows” of fizzy reactive liquid. I do think the lemons were still the most reactive, although the results were not anything like quantitative 😛

While we didn’t draw chemical diagrams and get into the atomic reason acids and bases react, we did have a lot of fun exploring the reaction itself! It’s such an easy and exciting way to see how different types of substances can interact.

Posted in learning together

learning together: biomes

While the kids were playing together, I set up an activity for the next lull in their imagination. Pulling out two of our giant whiteboards, I quartered them and placed a biome card (from our Waseca materials) into each of the eight sections: Oceans, Wetlands, Tropical Forests, Temperate Forests, Grasslands, Desert, Mountains, Polar Regions. Pulling out the box of toy animals, I began sorting them into the biomes: zebras in Grasslands, tigers in Tropical forests, dolphins in Oceans.

It wasn’t long before Rondel came out and was instantly engaged, asking if he could help sort the animals. So we sorted together, talking about which biomes would make the most sense for animals which are domesticated, for example, or adapted for a range of habitats. When we had at least a few animals in each biome, I brought out the biome question and answer cards.

There were six questions altogether (asking about temperature, moisture, soil, plants, animals, and humans), and each one had an answer for each biome, so Rondel’s task was to match each answer to the correct biome after I read the card. He only needed help on one or two of the cards, and showed a good conceptual understanding of how the environment differs between biomes, how plants and animals have adapted to different biomes, and how humans have interacted with biomes in different ways (both positive and negative).

I noticed that our animal representation was heavily skewed towards African grasslands and oceans; the Waseca teacher’s guide recommended using animals cutout from magazines, which would increase the diversity, but I didn’t have any that I was willing to cut up. I may just need to buy a big batch of old National Geographics or ZooBooks off of Ebay – old magazines can be really useful craft and learning supplies!

This activity was a good summary of the information we’ve learned about biomes as well as a good overview before diving into more detail on any one area; I think we’ll explore animal adaptations next but I have a lot of ideas.

Posted in sqt

{sqt} – honoring God as a lab tech in academia

My church emphasizes the idea that “all of life is all for Jesus” – by which they mean that, as the Apostle Paul wrote, whatever we do can and should be done in and for God, no matter how mundane or humble or uncomfortable the task might be on its own merits. Every profession has purpose or nobility when done to serve other people, for the good of the community of humankind, and we can be encouraged to work with excellence when we see that purpose in our own life. So I’ve been thinking about my paid work as a molecular biology and bioinformatics research specialist, and how that job (and I through it) can bring glory to God.


  1. What I Do: For the last 9.5 years I’ve worked as a technician in a genetic sequencing core facility in academia – meaning, we handle DNA and RNA samples from researchers and get them the sequence data that they need to determine the results of their experiments. We don’t come up with our own experiments, or have our own research; instead, we support the research of a lot of other labs at the university, around the state, and even around the world. The specifics of the job are pretty technical, and there’s a wide variety of sequencing applications we provide, but that’s the gist of it.
  2. Learning About Creation: Some of the research we support is what is often called basic science: people who love the natural world delving deeper into its complexities, for the sheer joy of accumulating knowledge. Because all of God’s creation reflects His image and gives Him praise, learning more about that creation can help us see that image and attune our ears to that praise. How intricate and involved every aspect of life is, down to the unknown archaea in acid lakes or the countless insect species hidden in the rainforest! How varied and multicolored is the fabric of life, all woven for the beauty and wonder of itself and its Creator, in patterns we are only beginning to understand! How unfathomable must be the scientific mind and artistic eye that made all this!
  3. The History Of Creation: I know certain Christians really struggle with the theory of evolution, but to me it is so beautiful that God would have given His creation a built-in mechanism to change and adapt to a mutable world, and to equip them to fulfill His desire in Genesis for His creation to spread throughout the whole world, with all of its different ecological niches. If biological information were not stored in the sequences of DNA and RNA the way it is, with its propensity for the propagation of small yet biologically significant errors, evolution may not have been possible, and mass extinction would have been the result instead. A lot of the research we support examines ancient DNA, or patterns of related DNA sequence from different species, letting us see the graceful flexibility of life responding to adversity as its Creator equipped it to do.
  4. Harnessing Creation: Finally, a significant amount of the research we are involved in touches on issues that directly affect people – experiments examining how exposure to different chemicals and medicines influence our bodies’ microbiomes, or which genes spur the growth of tumors, or which genes are signals that a particular drug may be effective against a particular cancer or disease. Here we can honor God by supporting research that serves people, that is striving to make a better world and work for the flourishing of humanity.
  5. Accuracy and Attention To Detail: The researchers who use our facility trust us to handle their samples and their data with accuracy, honesty, and thoroughness. If I cut corners I can jeopardize an entire experiment. If I use analytic software to skew the data when I’m processing it to return to the researcher, I can derail or delay scientific understanding just to get a good-looking short-term result. So if I’m going to honor God with my work, I need to do my best whenever I’m handling samples: I need to ensure that everything is documented and tracked accurately, I need to pay attention to the details of a protocol or the results of a QC test, and I need to be upfront about admitting mistakes so that they aren’t perpetuated.
  6. Efficiency: Science, in academia at any rate, is carried out on the taxpayers’ dime. We survive on government grants! If I am wasteful with the resources we have, that affects the funding available for other projects (not to mention it is definitely not sustainable. The plastic and biohazard waste we generate normally is already depressing, without adding more due to inefficiency!) So here I can honor God by being a good steward of the resources we have and honoring the trust our community gives us by awarding us the funding (or that researchers give us by choosing our facility for their sequencing work).
  7. Expertise: Most of the researchers who use our core are not experts in sequencing. It is just a part of their scientific journey. So they rely on us to help them decide on the parameters that will give them the statistic power they need to get meaningful data, and they often rely on us to help them prepare their samples and understand their data. I can honor God as I work with them by being helpful, patient, and informative; by communicating respectfully with them; and by not taking advantage of their ignorance. It can be frustrating when a researcher asks for details about an experiment we completed five years ago or changes their mind about their experiment just as we’re about to get started on it after weeks of planning, but it’s also a chance to show them love and become a servant, to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

I’m linking up with This Ain’t the Lyceum today and Kelly has some beautiful thoughts on disability and the passing of a member of her parish in addition to her regular humor, so I encourage you to visit! I’d also love to hear any thoughts you have about your own vocations and how they can be lived out in and for God.

Posted in book review

{book review} lithium: a doctor, a drug, and a breakthrough

book cover for Lithium; pastel rainbow letters over a black-and-white image of a scientist at a microscope
Title: Lithium: A Drug, A Doctor, and A Breakthrough
Author: Walter A. Brown
Date of Publication: August 2019
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Lithium, as its subtitle suggests, tells three interwoven stories: that of the life of John Cade, the doctor who discovered lithium’s most important medical use; that of lithium itself from its first discovery as an element to its recognition as both a drug and a toxin; and that of lithium’s bumpy road to acceptance through research trials, scientists’ feuds, and governmental wariness.

Continue reading “{book review} lithium: a doctor, a drug, and a breakthrough”
Posted in family life

lift off!

Our biomes curriculum started off by introducing our planet’s location in the Solar System – it’s kind of important, after all, since the sun plays such a crucial role in shaping climate, determining the seasons, and maintaining life. It’s intended to be just a brief overview, before diving down more deeply into Earth itself, but both Rondel and Limerick have become completely, utterly captivated by outer space.

Limerick in particular has attacked it with his rather academic and obsessive bent, spending hours poring through images of the sun and the planets (always in order, from Mercury outward, including the dwarf planets), asking me to read and reread the books we have in the house, getting out the play dough day after day to model the solar system and using the kitchen scale to make his planets as close to an accurate scale as he can. (Since it’s finicky in its old age and won’t switch from standard to metric units, he’s gotten some practice working with pounds and ounces as well. It is rather irritating when something needs to be 1000 times larger than something else and you have to divide by 16 to get the correct number of pounds.)

 

(I may be to blame for his obsession with accurate scaling… for our first solar system activity, we made a scaled model of the solar system with play dough, based on NASA’s mass estimations for each planet, and measured out the appropriate distances between the planets so we could set them up down the hallway. Jupiter was so much larger that we ended up making a new double batch of play dough, using it all for Jupiter, and scaling everything else in relation to that.)

From top left, clockwise: all eight planets before placing them relative to the “sun” (the bookshelf); the whiteboard with calculations (and on the bottom a comparison of Jupiter’s mass in kg to various family members in kg); Jupiter looking out toward the other gas giants; Neptune looking in toward the “sun”; Jupiter looking in toward the inner planets.

Over the weekend, both boys decided to make paper models of the solar system as well, not to scale, but showing all the planets and the sun. They even wrote labels for each planet, which is the most handwriting they’ve ever done at one time! (Rondel’s picture is on the left and Limerick’s is on the right – Rondel included Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, and Limerick gave his sun quite a few solar flares.)

They’ve also been asking to read from our (admittedly small but at least quality) space book collection at bedtime and throughout the day. We’ve been cycling through Our Solar System by Seymour Simon (published in 1992, and lacking a lot of newer information), The Magic School Bus: Lost in the Solar System (published in 1990, so the same problem), and Astronomica by Fred Watson (published in 2011, absolutely massive, with amazing images and detailed information which I have to skim through to read at a level the boys can understand).

I’m planning on finding some supplementary books from the library about different space missions and picture book biographies of people involved in space exploration, so we can incorporate some history into our space study as well. We’ve already made a timeline with the lives of family members and individuals from books we’ve read, so it would be natural to include important dates in space exploration. Since ASU has a large space exploration exhibit and 3D show open to the public, I’ll probably try to incorporate that as well. And while Limerick has already used math with all the scaling he’s done, I’d like to find a way to show the boys how much math was used in designing spacecraft, planning missions, and charting the orbits of planets – Rondel enjoys math far more when it involves a topic he’s interested in. It might not have been my original plan for the beginning of the school year, but what’s the point in homeschooling, after all, if you can’t be flexible and use your children’s interests to motivate their learning?

Posted in sqt

{sqt} – july quick takes: getting ready for school

  1. School starts early here in the valley, and while we’re not tied to any specific school schedule, I’m feeling ready to settle into more routine and structure than we’ve had in our (very fun and very busy) summer so far. Actually, for the first time in my life I’m creating tentative weekly and monthly schedules and will be trying to keep track of things in my own custom planner! I have never been able to maintain a planner for more than a week, so we’ll see how this goes.
  2. The most exciting part of preparing for school has been making a list of all the books I want to buy 🙂 My husband will probably arch his eyebrows at me and comment about our lack of shelf space, but I currently have forty-five books on my list and I’m sure I’ll come up with more!
  3. I’m also thinking of purchasing a science curriculum – I found one that is about climate and biomes from a Montessori background, and while I definitely can’t buy all the physical props to go with it, the curriculum itself still looks like a solid introduction to those topics (very beautifully and thoughtfully laid out). Rondel moved up to a full-day scholarship amount through our state’s ESA program, so we have funds to cover more than speech therapy this year and I may be a bit over-excited about it…
  4. Rondel turned six this month! I haven’t uploaded any of the pictures from my camera yet, but he had a great party with both sides of the family present. He has so much energy now, and so much creativity, and such a love of nature. He’s also starting to decode words and is willing to spend more time practicing writing, so I think we have a pretty solid foundation going into the school year.IMG_3056
  5. One of my other major areas of focus this year is going to be on the saints. Probably more than half of my picture book list is about the lives of various saints, working out to about 1-2 every month (I have several from the library as well – I work at the university, so I can get year-long loans on most of the children’ books, for school purposes). Each saint portrays a slightly different way of loving and following God, and inspires us to love and follow Him in our own way. The community of saints is such a powerful and beautiful reality – and the stories of the saints help us see how the truths of the faith that we hear at church and read in the Bible can be lived out in different cultural and personal circumstances.
  6. Music and art is another thing I want to be more intentional about this upcoming year. Rondel especially loves to make crafts, but he needs a lot of help and things can get messy and I know the creativity won’t be able to shine as much as it could unless I schedule it in and make myself deal with the mess 🙂 And since we do have some auditory sensitivities in the family, I may gently ease into music by making some simple instruments during our craft times, and then using them while singing together. Actually, if you have a list of high quality folk/traditional children’s music I would absolutely love it…
  7. Most importantly, our schedule is full of wide open times to play, explore, and go on adventures and trips. Routine provides stability, but flexibility and (some, minor) spontaneity provides a spark of excitement and energy.

How are you preparing for the new school year? Anything especially exciting or new? Also, don’t forget to visit This Ain’t the Lyceum for the quick takes linkup today!

Posted in family life

wildlife in the backyard

As I haven’t had the chance yet to pick up some brown paper lunch bags to cover the sunflower heads, the local birds are enjoying quite the feast in our yard. Rondel was absolutely thrilled, a few mornings back, to come across a rosy-faced lovebird breakfasting on the ripening seeds – and I’ve seen more of them every day since then!

The lovebird isn’t a native species – the Arizona Field Ornithologists website has a lot of information here. However, it is still really neat to see them hopping through the yard and on the sunflowers! Growing all these plants has turned our backyard into a living science lesson, with so many different insects and birds coming for food or to make a home. Rondel especially has been taking full advantage of that fact, prowling the yard for hours every day looking for bugs and other animals: he’s caught or observed so many different varieties of butterfly and moth (including one that looked so much like a leaf I almost missed it), countless crickets, soldier beetles, ladybugs, green lacewings, stinkbugs, crab spiders, orb spiders, and more that we weren’t able to identify.

Of course, when the yard looks like this, I would be more surprised if there weren’t butterflies and moths:

IMG_2871

My experimental lawn alternative was rather a failure due to my impulsive decision to add some wildflower seeds to the mix… but while the end result is most definitely not a lawn, it is certainly beautiful right now with everything in bloom. We’ll just try again in the fall to get something more walkable 🙂 and for now let our budding naturalist enjoy his private field for exploration.