Discovering Science: Angel Wings and Waterfowl

** The Everyday Learning May 2015 Discovering Science Blog Hop is all about Life Science. **

Our local nature center built a brand new waterfowl exhibit, even though the nearest lake is a mile up the mountain. (Okay, it’s a really steep hill with lots of trees growing on it, but it feels like a mountain somedays.)

Not until fingers started pointing through the wire fence did I slow down to take notice of what was in the pen. Clearly, something was wrong with the geese. At first glance, it looked as though the birds were walking around with their wings sticking out – kind of like there were doing a mating ritual.

On closer look, we saw that the wings were permanently bent in a painfully awkward position away from the bird’s body. Then we saw the sign.

Feeding bread to ducks and geese is a major No-No. In the past, I had heard people say you shouldn’t feed wild animals, but I always thought it was because it made them dependent on humans and they would lose their natural ability to find food for themselves.

Even though we think of bread as a food high in carbohydrates, enriched bread has more protein in it than a baby duck or gosling needs. As biologists from Michigan State explain – when birds eat too much bread, especially when they’re still young, their wings grow too fast for the rest of their body. The young bird’s body cannot support the weight, so the wings become twisted and deformed. Twisted wings can’t fly, which means the birds can’t look for food, migrate, or even escape from predators.

Stumbling on this bird exhibit opened up so many more questions.

Everyday Learning About Angel Wings

  • Birds with Angel Wing cannot fly. Can you name other naturally flightless birds? Think off the top of your head and you’ll guess penguin and ostrich, but did you know there are over 40 types of flightless birds found in the world today? As you read about the birds, study their physical features and make a chart. Do the birds have anything in common that allows them defend themselves against predators? Look at their feet or talons – their beak – their size – other methods for moving – even their behavior pattern. Don’t forget to look at habitats. Do most flightless birds live on a certain continent or are they spread across the world?

    While you’re at comparing and contrasting birds, take a look at their diets. Obviously, bread is not good for birds because it’s high in protein; but what should birds eat? Some birds, like eagles, eat fish – but isn’t that high in protein, also? While a trip to the library or a good keyword search will help you find answers to your questions, you can also reach out and ask an Aviary Expert if you get stumped.

  • Check out this short animation that explains how birds fly with a great analogy using a boat moving down a river. If you want to learn more about how birds fly, here’s some free middle school level lesson plans on bird flight.

  • Be a Citizen Scientist with Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. Pick from one of 6 ongoing projects, like Project FeederWatch and Nest Watch, and add your bird data to real research. If you visit the Cornell bird link, be sure to click around their site. You’ll find bird cams and all kinds of free resources to help you build birdhouses and keep learning about birds of all types.
  • It’s commonly believed that most birds lost the ability to fly because they weren’t being chased by predators. Eventually, a special bone in their chest, that is used to hold wing muscles in place, devolved from their skeletons.

    Now, here’s the interesting tidbit. In February 2015, the Smithsonian Magazine reported that scientists have found evidence that evolution can be reversed. Bones found in dinosaur fossil remains (but not found in animals descended from dinos) have been found, again, in the embryos of some modern-day birds.

    Evolutionary biology is an advanced topic. But, if you have a kid who is really into dinosaurs or finds birds kind of cool, then you should first check out the University of California’s What Did T-Rex Taste Like free online learning module. Trust me when I say you’ll be going down a very long and interesting rabbit hole learning about the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds.

If you were going to explore Angel Wings with your kids, what would you study? Share your ideas below!

** The May 2015 Discovering Science Blog Hop is all about Life Science. Read how other families have stumbled upon a learning adventure in their everyday life! **

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Rekindle: Butterflies

Were you hoping to homeschool through the summer – only to find the lure of sun and fun too much? No worries, you can hatch a weeks-long summer experiment packed with all kinds of learning that’s cloaked in wonder and excitement – and not a whole lot of work for you.

Your kids already know some of the basic facts about the life cycle of the butterfly and how you should never touch their wings. Take their love for butterflies a step further by watching the life cycle in action.

Just remember, caterpillars are living creatures, just like your pet dog and tank full of fish. You wouldn’t skip feeding your puppy for 3 days, would you? Caterpillars need proper care and humane treatment, too.

Here’s some Do’s and Don’ts for raising caterpillars successfully inside your home.

Identifying Caterpillars


  • Do identify the caterpillar you’ve brought into your home.
    Use the Butterfly and Moth Regional Database to identify the living creature you are hoping to watch grow into a butterfly. This amazing resource will help you narrow down by geography and photographs, what caterpillar you found. This necessary information will allow you to properly feed the caterpillar so it can advance in its lifecycle.
  • Do create an appropriate terrarium environment for your caterpillars.
    If you are not using a Butterfly Larvae Kit, you will need to make sure you place fresh leaves in your habitat tank daily; keep sticks in the tank so the caterpillars have someplace to spin their coccoon; and make sure the tank does not get too hot from direct sunlight.
  • Do clean the caterpillar poo in your tank daily.
    What can I say! Caterpillars are eating machines – and what goes in, must come out. A wet paper towels can easily do the trick to wipe out the bottom of your tank. And, if you must know, the technical term for what you’re cleaning is “frass”.
  • Do make sure your tank is big enough.
    Once your new butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it needs enough space to be able to spread its wings and flutter a bit. Even a giant size mayo jar will be too small.
  • Do release your butterfly within 24 hours of its emerging.
    After all that hard work of transforming into a beautiful butterfly, a creature has got to eat – and for a butterfly that means they’ll be looking for colorful flowers with some tasty nectar.
  • Do feed the butterflies.
    If you want to enjoy the beauty of butterflies after your release, give them a reason to stick around. Caterpillars are particular about the plants they eat for survival. Know what caterpillars you are raising and see if you can add the right type of plant to your garden.
  • Do keep a small wet spot or “puddle” somewhere in your garden.
    Butterflies drink muddy water for the essential minerals that are in the dirt.


  • Don’t take an already-spun chrysalis off a branch and bring it home.

    Cocoons and the metamorphizing larvae inside are very delicate. Handling an actual chrysalis may seriously harm or kill the butterfly-to-be. If you really need to bring a chrysalis home, gently cut the branch and be sure to remember which end is up, before you place it in your tank.
  • Don’t keep wilted leaves in your tank.
    Caterpillars get much-needed water from the fresh leaves that they eat. You can keep leaves fresh by sticking the cut end into a small jar of water. Cover the top of the jar with a plastic wrap kept in place with a rubber band. Poke a hole in the wrap so you can stick the branch into the water. This keeps the leaves fresh and the caterpillars from drowning.
  • Don’t touch or handle the caterpillars.
    Caterpillars are fragile creatures. Caterpillars are great climbers and they use their many legs to cling to branches. Trying to pull a caterpillar off of a stick may actually rip one of its legs off. If you must “pet” your caterpillars, be sure to wash your hands before and afterwards so you don’t pass on any bacteria.
  • Don’t worry if your caterpillar looks tired or turns a different color.
    If your caterpillar starts moving less and stops eating after it’s gotten big, chances are it’s getting ready to molt and spin its chrysalis. Pay attention because this is when the magic begins!
  • Don’t be disappointed if a butterfly never emerges.
    Some caterpillars never make it out of their cocoon. One reason may be because a fly or bee larva was living on your caterpillar without your knowing. If more than 4 weeks pass after the chrysalis forms and nothing emerges, you can carefully slice it open to examine what it looks like on the inside.
  • Don’t release your newly hatched butterfly too soon.
    When a butterfly first comes out of its cocoon, it’s wings are weak and wet. The baby butterfly must flex its wings to strengthen them. Putting a newly hatched butterfly outside to dry its wings and prepare for its first flight faster puts it at risk from attack by hungry birds. Trust me. Watching this part of the circle of life can be traumatic for a little one who has invested themselves in this project.
  • Don’t use insecticides in your garden.
    Butterflies are insects. Insecticides are designed to kill insects. See the problem?


Rekindle: Snowballs and Science

To take a snow day or to sludge through a day of homeschooling when all the neighbor kids are outside playing? That’s the question being tossed around on a facebook group I belong to.

I completely understand the need to not give in to every whim of not wanting to do work, but I also believe that work shouldn’t always be so dreary when there’s a beautiful world outside to explore. So, when snow comes our way, which in Maryland, it’s actually a treat, my vote is to take the learning outside and disguise it with snowballs.

Aiming for tree trunks is better than aiming at people – especially for little ones who are still developing eye-hand coordination.

Better yet, collect some fallen branches or get an old hula-hoop or jump rope from the garage and create targets on the ground.

  • How far do you have to stand back so your snowball makes it to the center?
  • What happens if you throw the snowball up high first?
  • Is there a better angle for throwing snowballs when you’re closer to the target?
  • What about when you’re standing farther away?
  • How much more force do you need to use to make your snowball travel a longer distance?

Not too cold, yet? Playset safe enough to climb up? Take your snowball physics one flight up.
Do your snowballs travel farther when you launch them 6-10 feet off the ground using the same amount of force?

Really, what you’re exploring with your kids is the physics concept called projectile motion. There’s more math involved in determining projectile motion than most elementary age kids will understand, but there’s a lot of intuitive learning they’ll get from this hands-on “experiment”.

Use this free projectile simulation to confirm some of your snowball findings. This one uses a cannon and an army man, though.

Or, try this projectile simulation. I don’t like it as much as the first one, but the page has a load of links for lessons you can do for more formal learning.

If you don’t mind the corny Santa theme, try out this free online snowball game. It’s a bit like Angry Birds, with a little Rube Goldberg machine thing going.


There Be Dragons

I’ve had my share of tough homeschooling requests – like a certain 10-year old who wanted to build a working model of a jet propulsion engine. He had just read The Radioactive Boy Scout and was inspired by the teenager who built a nuclear reactor in his garden shed. (This is a true story.) My guy was inspired and this was, to him, just a natural extention of his current passion with aeronautics.

Multiple trips to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, model plane kits, an aeronautics class, and loads of books and online simulations just weren’t enough. I reached out to my special community of friends and they politely stifled giggles when they told me they had no leads to share.

I finally had to tell my son that, sorry little man, no can do. This humanities mamma had neither the skills, the wherewithal, nor even the finances to figure this project out. I was surprised by how disappointed he was and his interest in aeronautics ended soon afterwards.

When I saw the story about the 7-year old Australian girl who wanted a pet dragon for Christmas, I totally understood why her parents suggested she write a letter to the scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. While some kids can understand why an answer must be “no”, they still hold out hope that maybe their dream will come true.

The scientists at CSIRO apologized for not having ventured into the R&D of fire breathing dragons, but then things got interesting. Sophie’s letter went viral. The first world wanted to see a little girl’s dream come true. So, the scientists reconsidered what they could do.

On January 10, 2014, a dragon emerged from the recesses of CSIRO.

News reports are sharing that Sophie is super excited about her new dragon she and all her friends are super interested in science now, more than ever.

Well played, CSIRO. Sometimes, indulging an imagination is a good thing!

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

The Star Wars franchise continues to appeal to kids and adults for its classic tale of good versus evil and its really cool science-comes-to-life ideas. Seriously, who wouldn’t want a chance to drive a pod racer?

If you’ve got a Star Wars geeklet who would rather talk tech than read poetry, then we’ve collected more than a dozen ways you can build on that excitement through Everyday Learning explorations. Wait till you see how you can channel The Force to build days and weeks worth of homeschool learning.


The characters of Star Wars are based on an ancient storyline called the Monomyth. The Monomyth sets out a hero’s path that he or she must travel in order to achieve his or her quest. Elements of the Monomyth include a birth story that usually relates to an orphan; a call to adventure that is oftentimes initially refused; helpers; and a rebirth that occurs after the climatic battle.

Explore how Star Wars fits the Monomyth:

  • UC Berkeley’s Hero’s Journey: 1-page interactive wheel that describes the main elements of the monomyth. This Monomyth site defines the different stages and includes pictures from Star Wars. After you get a better understaning of the Monomyth formula, see if you can identify how Anakin and Luke Skywalker both fit the hero’s journey.

  • Hero’s Journey Story Starter: A free online interactive tool that prompts kids to create their own hero. Click on each of the ten silhouettes and type in your answers to the prompts. When you’re done, you can print your notes to use as a writing guide.


Is it possible to build a light saber just like those found in Star Wars? The key may be found inside of a crystal. You can also watch Dr. Kaku’s video on a
full light saber design.

TechNewsDaily created a really cool infographic that explains how light sabers work. The original link is down, but you can still see the infographic on Pinterest.

Of course, some people are party poopers about light sabers. In 2010, GE engineer, Matt Gluesenkamp, published a blog explaining why light sabers will never work. The article is no longer available, but Geek Tyrant and Nerd Approved give you a summary of Gluesenkamp’s technological breakdown of why light sabers are pure fantasy.


  • The Force: From the authoritative Wookieepedia. (Yes, I spelled that right.) Discover everything you could possibly want to know about the light side, the dark side, the unifying side – the force!

  • Toy companies have been selling Jedi Force Trainers for some time, but you can train up your budding Jedi with a simple science experiment. University of Virginia’s Physics Department will help you explore the basic principles of static electricity using salt and pepper. Really, check it out. Your young padawan will get a kick out of seeing what other objects will work to make the pepper jump out of the plate. (Hint: Use a plastic spoon as your “light saber”.)



  • Star Wars: The Magic of Myth Virtual Tour examines the mythology beneath the Star Wars story, a hero’s journey that takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away….” This online gallery of conceptual artwork and text is based on the National Air ans Space Museum’s Star Wars exhibit, which closed in 1999.

  • Add your ideas for learning more about Star Wars!