Tag Archives: discovery

Be a scientist in real life!


I have often talked about the scientific explorations of young children and referred to children as born scientists. Their curiosity, ability to engage in their own explorations and investigations, and make their own discoveries can be encouraged by adults who welcome their questions and become co-investigators.

I recently read a post on The School Bell, An Official Blog of Harris County Department of Education that excited me about ways of maintaining that engagement. The post, contributed by Lisa Felske, is entitled Kids Count: Let them Be Citizen Scientists. Lisa says that there of hundreds of projects children can get involved with, some for the long-term as a classroom project, and others that can be conducted independently. They are all real projects that help researchers collect and analyse data.

Lisa says,

“For students, participation can make them feel connected to a community or a place far from home and can give them the satisfaction of knowing they have made a small but important contribution to real science.”

How exciting to be part of a real project, collecting data that will make a difference to our world.

Lisa says that one of her favourites is “Penguin Watch, which allows students to monitor penguins in remote regions by looking at still images and counting the number of adults, chicks and eggs seen in the photos.”

I imagine many children would be interested in that too. But when you follow the link to Penguin Watch you find it is only a small part of the Zooniverse, “a collection of web-based citizen science projects that use the efforts of volunteers to help researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them”. With projects ranging from astronomy to zoology, you could say there is something for everyone.


Lisa also mentions other favourites including Project BudBurst and BudBurst Buddies (for younger students) in which junior scientists observe and record changes in plants throughout the changing seasons. While these are US based projects, the websites are rich with suggestions for adaptation in other places.

Finding out about, appreciating and caring for everything, plant, animal or mineral, large or small, near or far is a major part of the real purpose of education. I think involvement in programs such as those described in Lisa’s article will do much to maintain a learner’s curiosity and sense of wonder. What an amazing use of the Internet. I was definitely born too soon.

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.



The intrigue of nature 

By nature, young children are explorers and discovers. Their purpose is to investigate the world around them and figure out what’s in it, how it works, and how they can get it to work for themselves. It takes little effort on the part of parents and early childhood teachers to nurture this innate curiosity and stimulate an interest in the natural world.

Sharing in the excitement of children’s discoveries is a marvellous experience and something I loved about having my own young children and working in early childhood classrooms, I now have the additional privilege of sharing in the wonder with my grandchildren. I feel very proud watching my two children, their dad and aunt, as together they explore the flora and fauna in our backyard. I know I have done something right.

These are just a few of the wonders we found this year:

The ladybird life cycle on our beautiful wattle tree.

© Bec Colvin

© Bec Colvin

A bee on the same wattle tree.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

A case moth attached to the rainwater tank.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

Nuts already forming on my little gum tree.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

Flowers on the native ginger.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

Plover eggs in a nest.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

The plover sitting on the eggs.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

Fruit on the sandpaper fig.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

Bottlebrush sawfly larvae.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

A silver orb spider.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

Flowers on my wattle tree.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills was talking about having a “looky-loo”, I’d probably call it a “sticky-beak”, at the effects of a river in flood, and described the way that neighbours help each other out, even if they’ve never met before. But Charli dives deep into the analogy of a flooded river, feeling washed out and overwhelmed by the rising tide of fear fuelled by a lack of understanding and appreciation of difference. She pleads for all of us to find our common ground, to realise that, while we are complex and contradictory, we share the same needs and wants. She says that if we don’t understand we should, “Ask, don’t judge. Learn, don’t isolate.”

Charli got me thinking about these issues, as she always does. I wondered, if we value, appreciate and marvel at diversity in the natural world, why don’t we appreciate it in other humans? After all, we are merely part of the natural world. That we have done more than any other species in manipulating it doesn’t alter that fact. Why can’t we all just agree to live and let live? Why do some think otherwise?

These thoughts reminded me of something I had heard in a fascinating TED talk by Ed Yong, called Zombie roaches and other parasite tales. Ed Yong is a science journalist on a mission to “ignite excitement for science in everyone”. He blogs at Not Exactly Rocket Science for National Geographic.

This particular TED talk is fascinating, funny, disgusting and very informative, with a little of something for everyone. He throws in terms like “mind control”, “eaten alive”, and “bursts out of body”. Science fiction has nothing on science fact.

He begins the talk by questioning whether animals choose their behaviour such as gathering in large flocks or herds for safety. He then talks about the popular children’s science “pet” brine shrimp, or sea monkey, and the ways in which a parasitic tapeworm influences the shrimp’s behaviour to enable its own reproductive cycle. He says, “The tapeworm hijacks their brains and their bodies, turning them into vehicles for getting itself into a flamingo.”

But that is just the first of his stories of animals behaving in ways as a result of the mind-control of parasites. He describes others and says that “Manipulation is not an oddity. It is a critical and common part of the world around us, and scientists have now found hundreds of examples of such manipulators, and more excitingly, they’re starting to understand exactly how these creatures control their hosts.

He describes a wasp that attacks a cockroach and “un-checks the escape-from-danger box in the roach’s operating system”. I wondered if this same box could be un-checked in humans. Not surprisingly, Ed went on to discuss humans but said that our methods of mind control were fairly primitive compared to the techniques of parasites. He said that this is what makes the study of parasites so compelling. We value our free will and fear having our minds controlled by others, but this situation occurs all the time in nature.

Yong then asks what he considers an obvious and disquieting question:

“Are there dark, sinister parasites that are influencing our behaviour without us knowing about it …?

He talks about a parasite that manipulates cats, a parasite that many people have in their brains. While there is no conclusive evidence of parasitic manipulation of human behaviour, Yong suggests that “it would be completely implausible for humans to be the only species that weren’t similarly affected.” I urge you to have a looky-loo at the now not-so-secret behaviour of these parasites. I’m certain you will be as entertained as you are informed and challenged.

So from a looky-loo in my backyard to a looky-loo at the world of parasites we come to my response to Charli’s flash fiction challenge to In 99 words (no more, no less) write about a looky-loo.

Copy-cat Sticky-beak

High in the branches Maggie practised her repertoire.  She watched people scurrying: erecting tents and marking long white lines.  She absorbed the rhythm of new songs: thump-thump, clink-clink.

She breakfasted on scarab beetles and was ready when the children arrived. But they didn’t notice her playful mimicry. Instead they flooded the field with colourful shirts and excited chatter.

Maggie watched silently. Soon she heard an unfamiliar song: “Go team, go team, go!” She flew to the top of the biggest tent and joined in. The children listened, then cheered. Maggie felt she’d almost burst. Instead she sang, and sang.

Perhaps we could learn from the magpie, one who looks, listens and learns and shows appreciation for others in the most sincere form of flattery: singing their song.

I love awakening to the beautiful songs of the magpie every morning. I chose to share this particular video, as yesterday we were also visited by a beautiful king parrot such as the one featured in this video. Awesome.

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

Can you dig it?

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills is talking about dirt and has challenged writers to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about dirt.

In her post Charli says that,

writing is like gardening - Charli Mills

and talks about sowing compassion to make our world a “worthier place to live”.

These are wonderful ways of thinking about dirt and good reminders of the importance of the earth beneath our feet, which is often taken for granted, even ignored, unless one is a farmer, a gardener, perhaps a miner, or possibly a child.

Children are often admonished about playing in the dirt, as if washing off a little soil  was the greatest difficulty. In our towns and cities we cover the soil with concrete and leave few patches of bare earth where children have an opportunity to dig.

Soil, though an essential resource of our Earth, is often overlooked. Ask a young child what living things need and they may say “water, air, food, sunshine and shelter”. Soil won’t rate a mention. But without it we wouldn’t have a thing to stand on! Nor would we have our other essentials: air, food and shelter – all dependent on the soil for their production.  The importance of soil and of conserving becomes even more evident with the realisation of how little of the Earth’s surface is available for producing food.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin If Earth was an apple . . .

Another great gift from the soil is knowledge. Much of what we know of Earth’s history and human history has been revealed by the soil as successive layers have been exposed or excavated; uncovering secrets of the past and enabling a much richer understanding of earlier times.

dinosaurs at museum Jan 91

© Norah Colvin

Our knowledge of dinosaurs has all been revealed from the earth with the first discoveries and identifications made only a few hundred years ago.  And there is still much more to be discovered. My children and grandchildren, along with many other children and adults, are fascinated by dinosaurs. How exciting it would be to make a new dinosaur discovery, find hidden treasures or unlock secrets of the past!

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

It is possible that many more dinosaur, and other, discoveries are yet to be made. The world’s only known evidence of a dinosaur stampede was found in Australia just a little over fifty years ago.  Even more recently a gardener in the UK found a dinosaur bone in his backyard! In the US, if you find a dinosaur fossil in your backyard it’s yours to keep!

According to this video, finding dinosaur fossils is quite easy:

The excitement of making new discoveries  and finding answers to questions is motivation for many.

In his book Good Ideas: How to Be Your Child’s (and Your Own) Best Teacher Michael Rosen relates a story told by David Attenborough. He says that, as a child, David took an interest in bones and if he was out walking and found some he would take them home and ask his father (a GP so would probably know) about them.

But his father didn’t just tell him. Wanting his son to be curious and interested in finding things out for himself, he responded, for example: “I wonder if we can work it out . . .” They would then look through books about zoology and anatomy and try to identify the bone’s origin.

Knowing that it is through the comparison of found bones with bones of familiar creatures that scientists have been able to work out much of what we now know about dinosaurs and other extinct creatures makes such an activity even more exciting and inspirational.

Rosen goes on to share an experience from his own school days. When a teacher confessed to students that he didn’t understand Comus by Milton, which had been set for study, the class and teacher spent the year together figuring out its meaning. Rosen compares the effectiveness of this approach to many others, stating that study techniques, “didn’t teach me how to find things that I really wanted to learn about. It didn’t take me down interesting side-alleys where I would find things that I didn’t know I would be interested in until I found them.” But he says what he learned from exploring Comus was “something that’s more to do with feeling than knowledge or learning: it was a confidence that I could investigate and discover things for myself. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that I got that feeling from someone who quite genuinely didn’t understand something?

A sense of wonder and curiosity, and a desire and willingness to find out for oneself answers to one’s own questions is fundamental to learning. Digging in the dirt occasionally can’t do that much harm. You never know what new discovery you may make!

Moini, A treasure chest with lots of twinkling gold coins, https://openclipart.org/detail/188617/treasure-chest

Moini, A treasure chest with lots of twinkling gold coins, https://openclipart.org/detail/188617/treasure-chest

The thought of just such a discovery is what inspired my response to Charli’s challenge:

Digging for gold

Her spade crunched against the obstinate soil. Then tap, tap, tap, another thin layer loosened. She scooped up the soil and tossed it onto the pile growing steadily beside the excavation site. With expectant eyes and gentle fingertips she scanned each new surface. Then again: tap, tap, tap — toss; tap, tap, tap —toss!

She pushed back her hat to wipe her sweaty brow, leaving a smudge of dirt as evidence. She glanced skyward. The sun was high. She’d been digging for hours. She must find something soon. What would it be? Pirate’s treasure or dinosaur bones . . .?


Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.





Child’s play – the science of asking questions

Unknown source. Apologies. Happy to attribute if informed.

Unknown source. Apologies. Happy to attribute if informed.

I often say that children are born scientists. From the moment they are born they are actively finding ways of figuring out how the world works, and how they can get it to work for them.1

Some people say children are sponges. But I say they are more than that. They are creators. They don’t just copy what they see. They don’t just repeat what they hear. They find new ways of working things out, new ways of expressing ideas, and new ways of thinking about things. Parents often remark, when children exhibit new behaviours or cute new phrases or ways of expressing themselves, “Where did they get that from? Where did they learn that?” Often the source cannot be identified, for the source is within the child.

An important way to keep children creating their own understandings and ideas is to not only allow them to ask questions, but to actively encourage them to do so, and to help them seek answers to their questions. Adults can be quick to quiet children’s questions for a number of reasons including not knowing the answer, being too busy at the time to investigate an answer, or even considering the question unimportant or “dumb”.

Unknown source. Apologies. Happy to attribute if informed.

Unknown source. Apologies. Happy to attribute if informed.

Remember, many things that adults may take for granted or that they may no longer question but simply accept (possibly as a result of not receiving appropriate answers or responses to their childhood questions) are new and unfamiliar to the child.

Sometimes it is easier to accept than to question for questioning means that something is unknown; and not knowing can lead to feelings of insecurity, doubt and instability. But it is these self-same feelings which drive innovation and progress. If everything was known, there would be no room for improvement, no need for anything new, no need for greater understanding.

This inspiring TED talk by Beau Lotto and Amy O’Toole, Science is for everyone, kids included emphasizes the need for children to be given the opportunity of asking, and exploring answers to, questions.

Beau explains that what we see is based upon our experience, upon our expectations. But he asks,

“if perception is grounded in our history, . . . (and) we’re only ever responding according to what we’ve done before . . . how can we ever see differently?”

He goes on to explain that seeing things differently begins with a question and that questions lead to uncertainty. He says that


and explains that the answer to uncertainty is play. He says that play “is a way of being” and is important for five reasons:

  • Uncertainty is celebrated in play and makes play fun
  • Play is adaptable to change
  • Play is open to possibility
  • Play is cooperative
  • Play is intrinsically motivated

“Play is its own reward.”

Beau says that science, also, is a way of being; and that science experiments are like play.

He describes working with a group of 8-10 year old children, encouraging them to ask questions and involving them in an investigation of a question they posed.

Amy O’Toole, one of the children involved, joins Beau and describes the experiment which investigated the ability of bees to “adapt themselves to new situations using previously learned rules and conditions.”

The really exciting thing about the project, Amy says, was that they “had no idea whether it would work. It was completely new, and no one had done it before, including adults.”

The process of taking the findings of the project to publication, as Beau explains, was rather complex with a variety of complications, taking two years to achieve. The experiment itself took only four months! Publication of the paper made Amy and her friends the youngest ever published scientists.

The response to the paper, The Blackawton Bees is amazing:

30 000 downloads on the first day

Editor’s Choice in Science (a top science magazine)

the only paper forever freely accessible on Biology Letters and

the second-most downloaded paper from Biology Letters in 2011

Amy wraps up the talk by stating that

“This project was really exciting for me, because it brought the process of discovery to life, and it showed me that anyone, and I mean anyone, has the potential to discover something new, and that a small question can lead into a big discovery.”

She finishes by saying that

“science isn’t just a boring subject … anyone can discover something new.”

We might not all make those big scientific discoveries, but it is the questions we ask each day which lead to our own discoveries, no matter how small; it is our curiosity which keeps us learning.

What have you learnt today?


1 This is just my opinion formed from observations, discussions and reading. I am not supporting it with research references.