Down and Dirty with Owl Pellets

Posted on Tuesday, October 03, 2017 by Stephanie Miller

Whoooo has dissected an owl pellet? You may think they are gross or you may get excited about them. Either way, owl pellets are great visuals for students when studying the nature of food chains and in demonstrating the role of predators in the ecosystem. Scientists use them to discover characteristics about owls such as when they hunt, where they hunt, how much they eat, and if their diet changes with the season. All of these things can be determined from what is found in owl pellets.

Owls cannot chew to break down their food, nor do they have a crop (a bag-like organ that stores food after it is swallowed for later digestion). Their food travels from their mouth to a temporary digestive organ called the proventiculus and then passes to their muscular stomach, or gizzard, for chemical digestion of the prey's muscle, fat, skin and internal organs. The fur, bones, teeth, skulls, claws and feathers, however, are not digested by the gizzard and are too dangerous to pass through the owl's intestines. All of this has to go somewhere, so within a few hours of eating the prey, the owl's gizzard packs it into a compact pellet and regurgitates it. These regurgitated pellets are moist when they are first ejected, but they quickly dry out and start to decompose once they leave the owl's body. It is possible to find owl pellets out in the wild if you know what to look for. Keep in mind, owl pellets found in the wild have not been sterilized and contain bacteria. For classroom dissection studies, sterilized owl pellets are recommended and may be bought from a retailer. 



Dissecting owl pellets requires a little bit of detective work and usually proves to be fun and exciting. Bones should be separated from the fur or feathers, and once all the bones are extracted, the detective work comes into play. In most owl pellet kits, there are instructions and bone identification sheets to help with the process of identification. If you buy individual pellets, Bone Sorting Sheets may also be purchased separately for students to use. By looking at the shapes of the bones, particularly the jawbones, you can tell what species of animal the owl has eaten. You will also be able to count how many prey items are contained within a pellet. 

Owl pellet studies can be fun in the classroom. Students may be hesitant at first, but after you assure them what the pellets really are and how they are formed, most times they prove to be a little more eager to dissect one. If you have never dissected an owl pellet, or if you just want to have a little fun with or without your class, check out this Virtual Owl Pellet Dissection.


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Daredevils need science, too!

Posted on Tuesday, August 29, 2017 by Stephanie Miller

Steve Wolf, author of The Secret Science Behind Movie Stunts & Special Effects, has received the Best Science Presenter of the Year/ award from Time Warner Cable, has been named Key Science Teacher in the US by Casio, and has been named STEM Presenter of the Year. As early as age five, Steve had a love for science, and he used this love of creating things to his advantage. Using a book about electricity, a big battery and a spool of wire, he made a reading light for his bunk bed and an alarm system to detect when his little brother tried to play with his toys. Science was fun to him. But, as he progressed in school, he hated science class because, in his eyes, his teachers were more focused on methods, measuring, charting, graphing, organization, etc. – all things he did not want to focus on. So when he graduated high school and went to college, he chose a completely different path receiving a B.A in Writing and Literature from Columbia University. This is when he began to relate Shakespeare and Physics. Steve says, “In inventing, it’s how you assemble the ingredients using your creativity that makes your invention what it is. Shakespeare had 26 letters to create all he did with his writing. Physics is much the same in that there are a handful of physics principles that govern the universe. We all have the same building blocks, it’s just creativity that is the only differentiator.”

Steve began his career in 1987 working as a set medic and then worked his way into special effects and stunts when he saw people getting hurt because of their lack of knowledge about science. Throughout his career, he has worked with Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, and many other stars on movies such as Castaway, The Firm, The Client, Crocodile Dundee II, etc. In 1992, Steve started working with schools to figure out how to make science more exciting for kids. This is when he developed Science in the Movies and created a 1-hour show demonstrating a half dozen stunts and special effects. The stunts and special effects are used to show students the science used and how science makes it all possible. Students get to see, firsthand, that science is more than just a "subject in school" – science underlies what makes their favorite movies fun to watch.

On the set, Steve is responsible for all of the special effects including explosions, fire, rain, lightning, hail, snow, haze, clouds, falling leaves, mist on the water, smoke, etc. Here is a little Q&A we had with Steve on how he accomplishes some of these:


It’s really just plumbing - open up a fire hydrant, run it through a hose into a big nozzle that is held up in the air by a big crane. Much the same as a lawn sprinkler system, just done on a much bigger scale. I determine what area needs to be covered for the scenes and then make it happen.


I invented a machine that creates a foam that looks just like snow and is somewhat like shaving cream. It comes out of a fire hose at 70 mph. To make it, I use a special kind of soap plus water and air to make foam. It comes out of a giant easel-towered compressor and stays put until it evaporates. The scenes take a while, so having "snow" last a while is very important.


A Lot! Blowing something up by definition is just pressing up with gas. The gas can come from a chemical reaction or you can get it from high pressure gas that you leak suddenly. Explosives are just fast chemical reactions that use a lot of energy.


Full body burns! Put an Insulator (Zel Jel) all over body that is capable of withstanding a tremendous amount of heat before any heat is transferred to you. ZelJel was invented by my mentor and friend, a scientist named Gary Zeller who won an Academy Award for his invention. Dr. Zeller was a special effects coordinator with a PhD in Polymer Chemistry. I was fortunate enough to have studied under Dr. Zeller for 3 years. Dr. Zeller has had the most influence on me throughout my career. He patented dozens of different inventions through the years. Dr. Zeller created an inventitorium in his home and now I have re-created this in my own home as a place to experiment with science.


It is also important to know about chemical reactions to make the special effects, as well as, the human anatomy. When performing stunts, it is very important knowing how much kinetic energy a body can withstand before it fails somehow.

Speaking from personal experience, Steve believes that “By kids learning a little bit of science, it can lead to extremely exciting career inventions.” Steve never thought learning science in 2nd and 3rd grade would lead to working with Tom Cruise! He considers it a big honor to work with big stars because these movie projects have big budgets that could hire anyone in the world. Steve also loves supporting teachers because, in his words, "they do the most important jobs on the planet."

Steve’s love for science and his belief in the importance of introducing young people to science at an early age have led him to open Stunt Ranch, in Austin, TX, where students can come experience the Science in the Movies. He also offers this experience as a mobile version which he can bring to any school. This program offers schools an experience called Science Day where they put on a whole Stunt Festival for kids to play and learn. Steve says they have traveled as far as Barrow, Alaska, to the farthest North elementary school on the planet. Since beginning his education program, Steve has performed over 5,000 Science Days.

If you’re interested in having Science in the Movies come to your school, email Steve Wolf. He also offers Professional Development for teachers where they show exciting examples to help get students more excited about science.

If you would like to read more about Science in the Movies, check out Steve’s book titled, The Secret Science Behind Movie Stunts & Special Effects which also has a teacher workbook with activities to support the book. Key science topics covered include: States of Matter (Solids, Liquids, Gases); Changes in States of Matter (Phase Changes); Properties of Matter (Conductivity, Density, Insulation, Resistance, Viscosity, Flammability, Reactivity, Tensile Strength); Chemical Reactions; Chemical Energy; Electric Circuits; Fire Dynamics; Mechanical Advantage; Work vs. Effort; Pressure & Force; Temperature; Simple Machines (Levers, Ramps, Wheels, Axles, Screws, Wedges, Pulleys); Compressability of Gasses; and Thermodynamics (Conservation of Energy, Conduction, Convection, Radiation). Key Safety Topics covered include:Drugs & Alcohol; Seat Belts; Home Fire Safety Plan; Stop, Drop & Roll; Anti-Smoking; Lightning Safety; Healthful Eating; and Don't Try This at Home!

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St. Louis Box Turtle Project

Posted on Monday, July 31, 2017 by Stephanie Miller

The St. Louis Box Turtle Project Team, led by Dr. Sharon Deem who is a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist at the Saint Louis Zoo, tracks box turtles and studies their health to better understand environmental factors that may be affecting the health of wildlife and humans alike. It is a fun and exciting way to help connect young people with nature while gaining an understanding of what it means to co-exist with animals and the importance of keeping them from going extinct. Take for instance bats. According to Popular Science magazine, it is estimated that windmills and wind turbines kill between 600,000 and 900,000 bats every year. Although bats may not appeal to humans for several reasons, it is important that we understand their role. Bats eat mosquitoes that could possibly give us West Nile or the Zika virus, and they also help with pest control. The same thing goes for understanding plants such as invasive species and the effects they have on our local environment. Bees and colony collapse are another example. So, you can see the importance of co-existing with other species. 

It is an exciting time for young people who may be interested in environmental issues, as well as, the more traditional medicine – human or veterinary. Dr. Deem says, "Whether it's called One Health, One Medicine, Conservation Medicine, Planetary Health, etc., it is really just this concept that we need disciplines across the spectrum – including human doctors, veterinarians, environmental scientists, educators, economists, politicians, journalists – to help bring awareness to the challenges of species co-existing." The St. Louis Box Turtle Project helps bring awareness to local students by using Box Turtles as an outreach tool to introduce students to nature and to get them started thinking about our world and the importance of conservation.

Using VHF technology, the St. Louis Box Turtle Project tracks box turtles in local Forest Park and Tyson Research Center. Currently, Dr. Deem says they have about 18 box turtles with trackers attached to their shell.

The team attaches the trackers using a small amount of non-toxic plumber's epoxy, and each tracker emits its own unique frequency.


Using VHF radio receivers and a special antenna, students learn to track and locate these turtles while tracking the turtles' home ranges.

Thanks to the St. Louis Box Turtle Project, students learn not only how to use telemetry and GPS, but also how to weigh the turtles, take measurements, observe the general condition of the turtles, and sample for some of the diseases the turtles might get. Speaking of box turtle health issues, be sure to read about Georgette and how she has overcome serious health challenges.

Having lived in the Galapagos Islands for a time, Dr. Deem and her husband now travel there for 4-6 weeks each summer to help save the giant tortoises and iguanas. Dr. Deem was actually in the Galapagos Islands when she so graciously interviewed with me. Dr. Deem was really excited because this is the first year that one of the local St. Louis educators has been able to make the trip, and they hope to have some from Galapagos travel to St. Louis in the near future. While in the Galapagos Islands, they will track the giant tortoises using telemetry tags much like in St. Louis. In Galapagos, they have 86 tagged tortoises in total now and use them to research the impact humans have on giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands.  

To further explore conservation medicine, check with your local zoo. Zoos play major roles in conservation medicine, for example, scientists at zoos conduct clinical, nutritional, pathological and epidemiological studies of diseases of conservation concern; provide healthcare to the wildlife in their care, thus ensuring successful zoo breeding programs that contribute to the sustainability of biodiversity; monitor diseases in free-living wild animals where they interface with domestic animals and humans; and perform studies that contribute to the fields of comparative medicine and the discovery of all life forms, from invertebrates and vertebrate species to parasites and pathogens. To continue following Dr. Deem and the St. Louis Box Turtle Project, please follow them on Facebook.



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Microscopes Up Close and Personal

Posted on Monday, June 26, 2017 by Stephanie Miller

Microscopes help us to explore and investigate the microscopic world around us. Dating back to the 13th century, microscopes are an important piece of equipment for any science lab. With that being said, they are also an expensive piece of equipment that should be cared for and maintained to extend the life in the classroom, lab or field. The more students know about them and respect them, the longer they will last. Our friends at Ken-A-Vision have graciously shared their Microscope Primer with us which will help students learn about the different types of microscopes, the parts of a microscope, microscope illumination, how to use a microscope, and how to care for a microscope.

Before heading back to your classroom in the fall, your microscopes may need a little "TLC." Ken-A-Vision also has a Microscope Maintenance Tutorial discussing the proper ways to maintain your microscopes. Ken-A-Vision suggests that compound microscopes should generally be serviced after about 200 hours of use.

Did you know?

Here are some fun facts about the history of the Microscope:

The earliest simple microscopes were referred to as "flea glasses" because they were used for observing tiny insects.

The first compound microscope was discovered in the 1590's by two Dutch eyeglass makers. Zaccharias Janssen, and his father Hans, put several lenses in a tube and noticed the object near the end of the tube appeared to be greatly enlarged.

Robert Hooke published Micrographia in 1665. In this book, Hooke had hand-drawn illustrations of all sorts of things as seen through the microscope. His most significant observations were of fleas and cork. It was his observation of the cork that led to his discovery of plant cells because he was the first to use the term "cell".

Anton Van Leeuwenhoek discovered "protozoa" - the single-celled organisms that he called "animalcules". He also improved the microscope and laid the foundation for microbiology. He is often cited as the first microbiologist to study muscle fibers, bacteria, spermatozoa and blood flow in capillaries.

Marcello Marpighi, known as the father of microscopic anatomy, found taste buds and red blood cells.

Robert Koch was a celebrated German physician and pioneering microbiologist. As the founder of modern bacteriology, he is known for his role in identifying the specific causative agents of tuberculosis, cholera, and anthrax and for giving experimental support for the concept of infectious disease. In addition to his innovative studies on these diseases, Koch created and improved laboratory technologies and techniques in the field of microbiology, and made key discoveries in public health.

Photo Credit: By Dnalor 01 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at,

German engineer Carl Zeiss revolutionized the quality of lenses in the 19th century.

The smallest object observed through a light microscope was 500 nanometers long.

Microscopes have come a long way since the first "flea glasses." Students are able to observe small, microscopic organisms in great detail both in and out of the classroom thanks to all the advances of the microscopes available today. And just like the early inventors, a student's curiosity and love of science will help open the doors for new discoveries in the future.

More Teacher Resources!

While checking out the Microscope Primer on the Ken-A-Vision website, be sure to take a closer look at the other great teacher resources that include both teacher and student handouts for Visual Arts, Creative Writing, Journalism, Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry, Earth & Space Science, Ecology, Physics, and Scientific Method. Don't forget to share these with your friends!

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Data Collection Mapping is as Easy as Survey123!

Posted on Monday, May 22, 2017 by Stephanie Miller

After visiting with Project ACORN for last month's blog, we reached out to Roger and Anita Palmer, our friends with GISetc in Dallas, Texas, to see what they might have that would take students' data collection results a step further. As always, they came through with flying colors!  Imagine sending your students out to different areas to collect data, then have them return to class and be able to show them a map with all of their collection sites mapped out on it with the results from each site! Amazing, right? Read on as Anita walks us through the steps to using Survey123 in the classroom.

What can you do with that data?

We enjoy conducting field data collection activities with students, and even more, we love the opportunity to display those data on an interactive map and graphs. When we study Project ACORN, we are so impressed with the powerful data that students are collecting, so why not create digital data collection surveys? In this blog post, we will give you simple instructions on how to create your own data collection surveys and view the results on an online map and graphs… all automatically, and all FREE!

  1. Using the technology device of your choice (laptop, iPad, Tablet, Smartphone, etc.), enter sample or made-up data on the Survey123 form
    • Enter the date your “tree” is planted, tree type, air temp, and soil temp. 
    • Enter the location of each of your survey points;
      • Point 1: click on the “Find my location” button to allow the survey to find your actual location.
      • Point 2: click and drag the map to a new location for your second point.
  2. View your points on a map
    • Click the plus and minus buttons to zoom in and out and click and drag on the map to pan it until you see your points.
    • Click on each point to see the data inside the points.

The map will continue to be automatically updated with points that others who read this article are entering from their devices.

There are also some wonderful graphs available right in Survey123 that will allow you to explore and analyze your collected data further.

What do you need to set up your own survey

  1. Decide on your data questions
    • On --Date--, I will plant a --Tree Species-- seed and will collect the --Air Temp-- and --Soil Temp--. I can also add a photo of my choice. (Remember, you can be collecting any kind of data — not just about trees!)
      • Date Planted
      • Type of Tree
      • Air Temp
      • Soil Temp
      • Photos and Files
  2. Sign up for a FREE Esri ArcGIS Online Organization account.
  3. Sign into Survey123 using your ArcGIS Online Organization account login.
  4. Drag and drop the different question type widgets to easily set up your question types. If you have any questions, there are very simple instructions on the help pages.
  5. Feel free to email Anita if you have any questions about this simple activity. We’ll be looking for your points on the map!
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Project ACORN Promotes the Importance of Native Species in Local Environment

Posted on Monday, April 24, 2017 by Stephanie Miller

Native species vs. invasive species is an important topic among environmentalists, ecologists, wildlife biologists, in schools, etc. As a matter of fact, invasive species was the current event topic for the 2016 Envirothon competition. What are native species and invasive species? Why does it matter which ones grow in our local areas? What can we do to help our local environment? 

Native species plants play an important role in our ecosystems. Naturally occurring in a region in which they evolved, native species plants support pollinators and local wildlife including insects such as bees, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. Native species plants are also important in our economies, and they affect our well-being as humans. Native plants have adapted over time to various environmental and social influences.

An invasive plant species is a plant or fungus that is not native to a specific location (an introduced species), and which has a tendency to spread and cause damage to the environment, human economy or human health. According to The Nature Conservancy, "The estimated damage from invasive species worldwide totals more than $1.4 trillion – 5% of the global economy."

Realizing the important role of native species to local areas, Peggy Carnahan, Kent Page and Augustine Frkuska teamed up to start Project ACORN (Alamo-area Children Organized to Replant Natives) in San Antonio, Texas. Peggy Carnahan has been a lifelong science educator and is currently Director of the Center for Mathematics and Science Education at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. She believes very strongly in Project ACORN and its protocols because it allows the whole community to learn about environmental awareness and how things can be done differently to make an impact on our environment. Starting out with eleven schools, Project ACORN has now grown to have more than thirty local schools participating. Peggy believes that we all need to go outside, enjoy looking around, and learn about what we see around us. By teaching this to our youth, she says that they have already seen improved state testing scores, and hope that it will bring about lifelong careers for some.

While interviewing Peggy at a Project ACORN learning session with students from two different schools, I was able to see just what these students are learning and how they are applying this knowledge. Understanding the environment and how it "works" is very important. These students are able to collect data from the environment and determine the overall health from their findings. In this learning session, the students were divided into small groups where the students from one school, who have been involved with the program for a while, were teaching the other students from the new school. One group talked about planting native plants and trees and used a high tech meter to perform soil analysis while discussing their results to determine what steps, if any, should be taken. Another group was testing the cloudiness of the water using a turbidity tube, and when asked why it is important to know this, their response was, "So we can know how much sun reaches the bottom of the body of water for the plants to get energy from the sun, and they can give out oxygen to the fish." One group was walking around observing plants and seeing how many insects they could find, another group was observing clouds and talking about climate change, and another group was using GPS receivers to find locations and discussing the effects of impervious surfaces in large cities where water, litter, etc. travels into drains and is carried right into the river which flows into the Gulf.

Project ACORN is a great STEM program because it can be continued from year to year, plus it has proven to be good for all students. Peggy described one child with Asperger's Syndrome who has excelled with Project ACORN and has become a leader at his school. Not only for students, it is a learning for the whole community including landscape maintenance crews, developers, school systems, etc. For anyone interested in the efforts of Project ACORN and applying some of this to your local area, Peggy says the main thing for a science educator to know is what plants and trees are native to your local area. Knowing that, she says, the Project ACORN protocols are adaptable and can be applied to your local area by identifying and swapping out the native plants and trees. If you would like to know more about the protocols of Project ACORN, visit their website.


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Exploring Soil Texture with Two Activities by LaMotte

Posted on Monday, February 27, 2017 by Stephanie Miller

Contributed by our friends at LaMotte, this is an excerpt from the LaMotte Soil Microbe Hunter. The Microbe Hunter Activities Series is a fun and safe way to bring STEM-based learning into the classroom through the culturing and presumptive identification of common microbes on innovative BioPaddles. For more information visit the LaMotte website.

Exploring Soil Texture

The look and feel of a soil is called the soil texture. Soil texture is determined by the size and proportion of the particles that make up the soil.

Every soil can be separated into three fractions – sand, silt, and clay. Sand particles are the largest and make the soil feel gritty. Silt particles are medium sized and give a smooth, floury feeling to the soil. Clay particles are the smallest and make the soil feel sticky.

Soil texture defines the nature and size of the pore spaces in soil so it determines the water holding capacity and the rate at which water can move through the soil. If pores are too large water will not be retained. If pores are too small, water will not pass through. Most soils have a combination of the three types of soil particles. Loam soils - with 20% clay, 40% silt and 40% sand – have the combination of water handling qualities that are best for growing crops.

Water moves quickly through sandy loam soil so it is beneficial for irrigated agricultural areas. Clay loam soils store more water. If irrigation is not available, soils with more clay retain water longer.

Activity 1
Determining Soil Texture by Feel

Rub some moist soil between your fingers

  • Sand will feel gritty.
  • Silt will feel smooth.
  • Clay will feel sticky.

Note: Clay has a large influence on the feel of a soil. As little as 20% clay will give the soil a clay-like feel.

Sandy soil is described as soil material that contains 85% or more sand where the percentage of silt plus 1.5 times the percentage of clay does not exceed 15%. Silt soil is described as soil material that contains 80% or more silt and less than 12% clay. Clay soil is described as soil material that contains 40% or more clay, less than 45% sand and less than 40% silt. Every soil can be classified by using the Soil Texture Triangle.

Soil Texture Triangle

Activity 2
Determining Soil Texture by Settling and the Texture Triangle

This procedure will separate soil into its three basic mineral fractions: sand, silt, and clay. The amount of time required for the soil particles of various sizes to settle in a graduated cylinder forms the basis for this test. The sand fraction will settle first, then the silt fraction, followed by the clay fraction. The approximate percentage of each fraction can be determined in the original soil sample.


  • Graduated cylinder, 100 mL
  • Plastic wrap
  • Rubber bands
  • Ruler (metric)
  • Powdered dishwasher detergent, 1/8 teaspoon
  • Measuring spoons
  • Soil Sample - Spread the sample out and allow it to dry overnight. Pick out any stones, twigs and leaves.


  1. Add the soil sample to the 100 mL graduated cylinder until it is even with 50 mL line. Note: Gently tap the bottom of the cylinder on a firm surface to pack the soil and eliminate air spaces.
  2. Add tap water to the 100 mL line.
  3. Add about 1/8 teaspoon powdered dish washer detergent
  4. Cover the top of the graduated cylinder with plastic wrap. (Double or triple the plastic wrap to make a stronger cover.) Secure the plastic wrap with a rubber band.
  5. Mix the soil and water thoroughly by inverting the graduated cylinder. Allow the graduated cylinder to stand for 15 minutes.
  6. Mix the contents of the graduated cylinder again by inverting it slowly for 5 minutes.
  7. Record the total volume of soil in the graduated cylinder.
  8. Allow the graduated cylinder to stand undisturbed for 24 hours or longer.

  9. Look at the layers of the settled soil in the graduated cylinder. The clay will be on the top, the silt will be between the clay and the sand, and the sand will be on the bottom. The measurement at the top of the clay level will also be the total volume of the soil sample.
  10. Determine how many milliliters of each fraction are in the graduated cylinder. Record the following data:
      Total volume of soil sample: __________mL
      Volume at top of silt column: __________mL
      (same as bottom of the clay column)  
      Volume at top of sand column: __________mL
      (same as bottom of the silt column)  
  11. Calculate the percentages of sand, silt, and clay.
    % sand = top of sand column, mL – bottom of sand column, mL x 100
      Total volume of soil sample, mL  
    % silt = top of silt column, mL – bottom of silt column, mL x 100
      Total volume of soil sample, mL  
    % clay = 100 - % sand - % silt  

    Note: Due to the colloidal nature of clay in solution and its tendency to swell and form a gel, the portion of clay in the graduated cylinder is not used to determine the clay fraction present in the soil. The clay fraction is calculated by adding the sand and silt fractions and subtracting this total from the initial volume of soil used for the separation.
  12. Use the texture triangle to determine the texture of the soil sample.
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The Ultimate Environmental Classroom

Posted on Monday, October 24, 2016 by Stephanie Miller

When teaching environmental science, what better place is there to learn than the outdoors? McDowell Environmental Center in Nauvoo, Alabama, is the ultimate outdoor classroom! Offering the best hands-on environmental science experience, students are able to learn by seeing nature up close in the 1,140 acre classroom as they wade in a stream to catch macro-invertebrates, touch sandstone canyon walls, identify trees using a dichotomous key, and much, much more. Connecting people to the environment, teaching respect for the Earth and its beings, and promoting a commitment to a lifetime of learning is what Camp McDowell is all about! 

Serving 350-400 groups per year, Camp McDowell is the largest Episcopal camp and conference center in the United States. Camp McDowell offers 3-Day, 2-Night camps and leaves the learning subjects up to the educator. Daytime studies are age specific and consist of 1.5-hour, 3-hour, or 6-hour classes. Some of the 1.5-hour class topics include:  Canoeing, Meet a Map, Survival Skills, Forest Critters, Compass Skills, and more. The 3-hour classes get a little more in depth and include Native Americans & Earth, Down to Earth, Meet a Tree, Value of a Tree, Stream Studies, Rock Query, Aquatic Adventures and more. The 6-hour class is a Trail of Discovery hike where the group hikes into the deep sandstone canyons, visiting rock shelters and standing beneath waterfalls. 

Thanks to my tour guide, Whitney, I experienced several classes and was very impressed with what the students were learning, as well as their participation with their camp instructors. Camp McDowell's staff members are professional educators and all have college degrees, so the caliber instructor working with the campers is top notch! The first class was a "Down to Earth" Class that helped students understand energy and how we can use it better. In this class, students learned all about coal and how it is formed. The McDowell Environmental Center even has a re-claimed coal mine on the property where campers learn more about the process of how coal is retrieved and the process of how you put it back and re-claim the land.

For our next class, Whitney took me on a little hike through the woods to catch up with the "Native Americans & the Earth" Class. The Mississippian Era replica village allows the instructor to share the lifestyle of early southeastern Native Americans with the students. By seeing this replica village, students can see and understand how the Native Americans lived off the land and had a great respect for the land. They made their own food, clothing and shelter from things provided by the natural world. Native Americans were also very knowledgeable about the environment and used all of their senses to help them survive. 

Whitney also shared with me that campers not only learn and experience environmental science and math at Camp McDowell, but they also gain an understanding of shared community space and how you should treat your neighbor. The three days and two nights spent at Camp McDowell are definitely inspiring and help bring awareness of our surroundings to this younger generation. Protecting our environment and respecting our neighbors are both areas we should all want to excel. 

According to the McDowell Environmental Center, a 3-Day Program includes 12 daytime class hours and 2 night programs plus 7 meals and 2 snacks plus 2 nights lodging. Camp McDowell can accommodate about 150 students per session. Class curriculum is correlated to the Alabama and Mississippi State Standards for Science, Social Studies, P.E., and Language Arts. To make a reservation, email McDowell Environmental Center or call 205-387-1806.


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Interactive BYOD Content for the Science Classroom

Posted on Monday, September 26, 2016 by Stephanie Miller

Contributed by Anita Palmer and Roger Palmer

Today’s classroom computing environments vary vastly, and sometimes it's a challenge to find good technology-based, easily-accessible science resources. In this inaugural post, we will introduce an easy-to-use, ready-for-tomorrow Earth science GeoInquiry activity, created by the Esri Education team, for your classroom. Best of all, it’s free, with no software to install or log-ins to remember!

So what is a GeoInquiry? A GeoInquiry is a 15 minute, pre-built activity that allows teachers to cover required content using a free, online, interactive map. The activities are standards-based and closely follow the map concepts taught in leading U.S. textbooks. The streamlined version below of an actual GeoInquiry helps students understand landforms information quickly. The science-based GeoInquiries follow the 5E instructional model, including answers to the questions posed.

Let’s dive into the geospatial inquiry series that exposes your students to the wonders of data and interactive mapping!

This land is your land

Open a web browser to for the map needed to complete the following exercise.

Rough, rugged, or smooth, what landforms cover North America's surface?

  • Once you have the map open in your browser, click on Modify Map.


  • Then click the Content button on the left, and check the box in front of the Landform Marker layer.



  • You will now see Edit at the top of the map. Click the Edit button, and then click the Land Use Marker button.



  • Click and drag on the map to "sketch" around entire regions that you feel look similar to each other. (If necessary, zoom in to see more detail.)


What's elevation got to do with it?

  • Click the Edit button to get the Contents pane back.
  • Click the About button in the panel (left of the Contents button).
  • Choose the Open presentation link to view the presentation. (You can still zoom in or out or pan while in the presentation mode.)
  • From your understanding and a little online research, pick out one particular feature and write a description of how these features might have formed.
  • Exit out of the current tab that has the presentation running to explore the online map further.

Would a bay by any other name... sound the same?

Use the Bookmarks button to find, write down, and differentiate one or more of the following types of landforms.

  • Coastal features
  • Freshwater landforms
  • Ocean bodies
  • River-farmed landforms
  • Higher elevation terms
  • Large ice features

GeoInquiries in the Field

Finally, how about using this GeoInquiry as a springboard to taking students outside?

With GPS units in hand, have students walk around the school grounds and monitor the altitude and physical features of the land they are walking on. While they are out looking at the grounds, perhaps they could test water quality, soil texture composition, plant identifications using Peterson field guides?

The GeoInquiries are meant to be a short introduction into pertinent content using the interactive ArcGIS Online maps and data while exciting students about the world around them. GeoInquiries are accessible from any Internet capable device: Tablet, iPad, Chromebook, or laptop. Consider using them in different experiential settings: one computer with projector class discussion or one-to-one device activity for students. They can be modified to reflect different instructional settings. If the teacher would rather tailor the GeoInquiry with different questions, download, then edit the document in Microsoft Word (2013 or newer) to create custom student worksheets!

Because they are published under Creative Commons, they can be loaded to the school or district learning management system such as Edmodo, Blackboard, Portals, or Google Classroom. A flipped classroom setting is perfect for this type of experience. Assign students the GeoInquiry for investigation prior to a class discussion or further investigation. Use these in any way that will suit your classroom needs best.

Currently, there are 60 GeoInquiries in the collection including science, history, geography and elementary (science and social studies) topics, more will be highlighted in future blog posts. For access to all of the GeoInquiries, go to

GISetc’s goal is to advance education, improve quality of curricula, contribute authentic research and learning projects, and to provide training and skill development in an atmosphere of discovery. You can learn more about GISetc and integrating data and maps into your classroom at Follow their updates on Twitter, @gisetc, or Facebook. If you would like to learn how your school can have free geospatial technology, contact She would love to help you map the day!

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What's Streaming in Your Watershed?

Posted on Monday, August 22, 2016 by Stephanie Miller

Water pollution affects us all no matter where we live. Our water sources are very important because we use them for fishing, swimming, canoeing, drinking water, agriculture and industry. Keeping them clean and healthy is vital. That's where awareness comes in - both in the classroom and out. Knowing about watersheds, the water cycle, different types of pollution and how to check the overall health of a water source helps bring awareness and helps ensure we keep our water sources healthy, or in other words, balanced with fish, insects, plants and nutrients. One program is helping do just that. The Adopt-A-Stream program is about helping you to help others to help our environment. Our Science Scene Team attended an Adopt-A-Stream workshop led by program coordinator, Debra Veeder and some of her colleagues, at Percy Quinn State Park in McComb, MS, June 14-15, 2016, where we learned how to map a watershed and assess the water quality physically, biologically and chemically, in addition to learning about things we can do around our own homes to prevent pollution from reaching our water sources. The 2-day workshop was very informative and helped us realize "it begins at home!" 

The Adopt-A-Stream program uses volunteers to examine water quality and report their findings. Thanks to the simplification of science techniques, individuals (with or without a science background) can now measure environmental conditions for surface water. And if the volunteer is willing to learn, they can even make physical, chemical and biological assessments. That's where workshops like the one we attended come in handy! According to Adopt-A-Stream, there are five steps to stream evaluation: 1.) Surveying and Mapping the Watershed, 2.) The Streamside Survey, 3.) The Biological Survey, 4.) The Chemical Tests, and 5.) It Begins at Home.

Surveying and Mapping the Watershed is important because it helps you to know how big the watershed is and gives you a good idea of the land uses and possible pollution sources that may affect the stream. Pollution sources can be point source wastewater discharges or non-point source discharges. Point source wastewater discharges are from a specific source such as a municipal, industrial or commercial discharge pipe. Non-point source discharges consist of rainfall and other water that does not evaporate or soak into the soil and becomes surface runoff. This runoff can pick up soil, fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals, animal wastes, nutrients, and automobile waste substances and drain into various bodies of water. 

Before a biological survey or chemical tests can be done on the stream, a streamside survey of the stream reach and the surrounding watershed should be done. When performing a streamside survey, you should look primarily at the area immediately around the stream reach. You will want to be aware of water and sediment colors, odors, and you will need to determine the stream stage. These things offer clues as to what might be happening in your stream. For instance, if you notice the water to have a brown color, the possible cause could be erosion of soil in upstream areas; if it has a colored sheen, this is called a "rainbow effect" or biofilm and can occur naturally, but may also indicate oil in the stream. As far as odors, a rotten egg odor indicates sewage pollution while a chlorine odor can possibly be caused from a sewage treatment plant over-chlorinating their effluent.

Once the streamside survey has been completed, the next step is the biological survey. Macroinvertebrate counts and inventories are important to understanding the stream health. Macroinvertebrates spend their lives in the water and are directly influenced by any changes to the water, so they are good indicators of the water quality, as well as, the amount of pollution present. Keep in mind though, not all organisms in a stream can be used to judge water quality. For instance, according to Debra Veeder with Adopt-A-Stream, "whirligig beetles, water striders, and predaceous diving beetles are not usually included in the survey because they are surface organisms that breathe air and are not indicators of the dissolved oxygen (DO) content of the water." For more information on macroinvertebrates and some classroom activities in identifying macroinvertebrates, check out some of our previous macroinvertebrate blogs

The fourth step, the chemical analysis, should be done at the same time as the biological survey to help you identify what is in the water. There are four parameters that should be tested: temperature, pH, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen. Temperature is important because it affects the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water in addition to the chemical and biochemical reaction rates. For instance, water at lower temperatures holds more oxygen per liter and decreased reaction rates, whereas, water at higher temperatures holds less oxygen per liter and increased reaction rates. As for pH, organisms have "a relatively narrow band of pH in which they can live and survive." pH is also an important factor in the amount of treatment necessary for water to be used for drinking or for industrial water supply. Turbidity relates directly to rainfall and is caused by suspended solid matter which scatters light passing through the water, and in turn, reduces the amount of light that penetrates into water and is required for algae and aquatic weeds to use in photosynthesis. And the last parameter is dissolved oxygen (DO) which refers to the microscopic bubbles of gaseous oxygen (O2) that are mixed in water and available to aquatic organisms for respiration. DO is the basis for most aquatic life.

And last but not least, the 5th step to stream evaluation is "it begins at home". The Adopt-A-Stream program encourages volunteers to "clean up trash and debris on their streams, recycle used motor oil, conduct a Storm Drain Marking Project, participate in World Water Monitoring Day, do a Stream Bank Stabilization project, and become an advocate for good environmental policies by contacting state and local lawmakers."  

Keeping our environment balanced and healthy is of the utmost importance! The earlier we learn this, the better off our world will be. Here in Mississippi, the Adopt-A-Stream program offers an Aquatic Ecology program for students to increase awareness of the importance of keeping Mississippi streams clean. If you are in Mississippi and interested in an Adopt-A-Stream program, please contact Debra Veeder at (601) 605-1790 or by email at The Adopt-A-Stream program also offers workshops to Envirothon students to help increase knowledge of Aquatic Ecology. If you are outside of Mississippi, check locally in your area for an Adopt-A-Stream program that will help you bring awareness and learning to your students. 


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