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Live Talk in the Daily Planet: What is Arduino? (or “How to Build Robots!”)

April 14, 2014

What is Arduino? (or "How to build robots!"): Live at the SECU Daily Planet Theater, Nature Research Center, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

What: Free talk with live demonstration and Q&A.
When: April 15, 2014 @ 10:45AM
Where: Inside the SECU Daily Planet Theater.
Who: Matthew FaerberCoordinator of the Visual World Investigate Lab in the NRC.

Ever wanted to build a robot but didn’t know where to start? Come to the Daily Planet to learn how adults and children alike are using an affordable technology called Arduino to build anything that they can dream of.

Lifelong Hikes – History is Natural

March 31, 2014

It is easy to become comfortable with our surroundings in a particular region, and we often forget how geological forces have shaped our landscape throughout history. A walk in nature can lead to pauses that remind us of our connection to the world around us.

In March, the Lifelong Hikers* explored the Endor Iron Furnace** in Lee County, a site where the past and present blend together. The furnace was built to supply the Confederacy with iron used in all facets of the Civil War. On our way there we drove past road construction, a water treatment plant, and railroad tracks to this historic site — all showing evidence of the continuous human influence on this area.

North Carolina State Historic Site

Endor Iron Furnace

As we began our hike to explore the short trail to the furnace ruins, the scenery changed. The Deep River was visible on its curved path towards the Cape Fear River. We passed  over a hillside covered with oak trees and painted buckeye, and the muddy trail was peppered with trout lilies, which are some of the first spring wildflowers visible in the Piedmont.

Native North Carolina Tree

Painted Buckeye

The furnace, though well past its prime, still stood tall and impressive at the bottom of the hill. Why was this location chosen for an iron furnace? We find the answer in the geologic history of this area. Much of Lee County is located in a region of our state called the Triassic Basin, which contains rocks that are 190-200 million years old. Prehistoric reptiles called phytosaurs once roamed this area. (One of the first fossil specimens collected by the American Museum of Natural History in New York is a phytosaur from this county.) They belong to a sliver of time that also created the iron ore and coal deposits that led humans to settle and develop industries here.

Native North Carolina wildflower

Trout Lily

We observed the now silent furnace, but in that moment we could imagine the non-stop hustle of men turning rock into supplies, hoping to change a war’s outcome. The thought of a bustling wartime industry seemed so unlikely in this quiet place, but the scenery reminded us of our past. We are much like the plants that grow beneath our feet. We are rooted in the ancient history of the earth, and we change as the landscape changes.

*On the second Wednesday of each month you can register to join the Museum on a day trip to explore natural habitats around our state. Lifelong Hikes are open to ages 18 and up.

**Endor Iron Furnace is a State Historic Site managed by the Department of Cultural Resources. Currently this feature is not open to the public, but plans are in place to stabilize the structure and create a park.

Photos by Jerry Reynolds and Martha Fisk.

Homeschool Chemistry 101 — Day 4

March 28, 2014

Introduction to Chemistry

By Daniel H. Vestal, AmeriCorps Museum Investigate Lab Educator

March 26, 2014 marked the grand finale to our Introduction to Chemistry series, “Whiz, Bang and Ewww!”, with a rousing request for an encore. Before I go any further in this final posting of the series, I want to thank the homeschool students and parents who attended. I am very appreciative to witness the beginnings of future lab researchers and chemists. I hope you enjoyed the series as much as I did.

For our final session, both our chemists, Dr. Holly and Dr. Katey, as well as Mr. Bob, discussed polymers, both natural and synthetic, as well as titrations and the interaction of acids and bases. The young scientists were split into three groups. Dr. Katey’s group learned about pH; each student tested various household materials to determine acidity or alkalinity. A second group was lead by Mr. Bob, who discussed the nitrogen cycle in aquatic environments, with students testing water samples for ammonia. Dr. Holly taught the very important skill of titration. An important concept learned in the class was pH.

pH stands for “power of hydrogen” in a liquid concentration. The pH scale ranges from 0, which is strongly acidic, to 14, which is strongly basic. By measuring the amount of hydrogen ions, chemists can determine the acidity of a liquid. It was surprising to think of everyday things as being an acid or a base. Take, for instance, soda drinks. When you take a sip of soda, keep in mind that it is an acid and is capable of breaking down the enamel of your teeth! An example of a base is ordinary baking soda at pH level 9.5. Pure water sits right in the middle with a pH of 7, which is neutral.

The young scientists in Dr. Katey’s group used a universal indicator fluid to determine the pH levels of baking soda, bleach, borax, dish soap, lemon juice, saltwater, sprite, and vinegar. By squeezing a few drops of the liquid into a sample, it causes an immediate color change. After comparing this to a colored pH scale, the homeschoolers were able to define each substance as an acid or base and the level of pH.

In Mr. Bob’s group, they tested for high and low concentrations of ammonia in water samples taken from the fish aquarium, the mosquito-rearing tank, and the duckweed pond. Even moderate concentrations of ammonia is toxic to fish and amphibians. Aquatic plants need nitrogen and ammonia is a source of this. However, too much can quickly lead to algae blooms. Those blooms can restrict oxygen in the water, particularly at night, or when they die and decompose, leading to fish kills.

To test the level of ammonia the homeschoolers used a two part chemical test that led to a color change indicating the level of ammonia. Their investigations revealed the level of ammonia in the aquarium water was neutral, the mosquito water was low in ammonia, and the duckweed had the highest concentration of ammonia. Bob explained that the high level of ammonia in the duckweed was probably from the fertilizer he added to the duckweed pond two days prior.

Dr. Holly’s group learned how to do titration. Titration is a laboratory method used to determine an unknown concentration of a known component, like an acid. You may know it’s an acid but don’t know the concentration. Titration is the process that reveals the answer.

The first step was filling a tall, glass burette up to the 0mL mark with sodium hydroxide. 10mLs of an unknown concentration of vinegar solution was poured into an Erlenmeyer flask. With a few drops of phenolphthalein, added to the vinegar as a color indicator, the titration was ready to begin. Slowly, carefully, and drop by drop, students added minute amounts of sodium hydroxide into the vinegar solution. Suddenly the color fuchsia magically appeared. With Dr. Holly translating the results, the unknown concentration of acid was determined!

Young chemist concentrating on his titration experiment.

Determined titration chemist. Photo by Karen Swain.

Finally the moment that all of them were waiting for —polymers! Dr. Katey discussed how in nature and in the world of chemistry there are natural polymers such as wool or DNA and synthetic polymers such as nylon and silicone. To demonstrate a natural polymer, chemists took cornstarch and water to create a simple polymer also known as “oobleck” after the Dr. Seuss’s children’s book entitled Bartholomew and the Oobleck. This non-Newtonian fluid resembles a liquid, but it is also a solid. If you scraped your finger across the top of the oobleck it felt dry, but if you let your finger sit on top it sank like quicksand.

For the next experiment the young scientists needed to put on their goggles and gloves. Under close supervision, they took both part A and part B of a polyurethane compound and mixed it to create polyfoam “ice cream” (non-edible of course). In its liquid form it could be mildly harmful if it touched the skin, but after it dries into a solid it is harmless. I still would not recommend trying to lick or eat the “ice cream” though.

For the final experiment with polymers, students created their own homemade green Silly Putty! Yay! Just by mixing three household items (white Elmer’s glue, water, and household detergent), a Silly Putty-like polymer was fabricated. I even made some for myself and couldn’t stop playing with it!

A young chemist astonished by her homemade Silly Putty.

Young chemist astonished by homemade Silly Putty. Photo by Karen Swain.

Again, I just want to thank all of the people who attended the four part series and those that have already requested more. It is in the works! If you would like to try out one of our homeschool programs or other classes, head to the Museum’s website, click, register, and come!

Homeschool Chemistry 101 — Day 3

March 20, 2014

Introduction to Chemistry

By Daniel H. Vestal, AmeriCorps Museum Investigate Lab Educator

Wednesday, March 19 marked the third installment of the homeschool chemistry series in the Natural World iLab.  Dr. Holly reviewed a few things in Week #2. One of the topics was phase changes between solids, liquids, and gases. She reminded the chemists how evaporation creates a gas, condensation creates a liquid, and liquids cool to create a solid.

She led the class in an activity describing the different evaporative rates of water and rubbing alcohol. The students made a bulk flow initiator (paper fan) to stimulate the liquids to evaporate. With digital thermometers the students were able to calculate in Celsius the degree change from a liquid to a gas. Which brought us to a demonstration from Mr. Bob.

Mr. Bob used a boiling flask, fractionating column, and condenser to distill alcohol from a mixture of water and alcohol. This distillation process illustrated how heat is needed to move liquid into a gas phase. Since alcohol’s molecular bonds are weaker than the hydrogen bonds in water, alcohol boils out of the mixture first.  Another experiment that has been nicknamed the “warm pig” was produced by using a water cooler jug (dressed like a pig), ethanol, and a lighter. With a capful of ethanol and a flick of the lighter, a flaming vortex of blue fire blasted out of the jug. Afterwards the students took turns touching the jug, which felt very warm, hence the nickname.

After that Dr. Holly went into detail about homogeneous and heterogeneous mixtures and provided several examples. Saltwater, which is mixed thoroughly and evenly throughout is a homogeneous mixture. Beach sand is heterogeneous, meaning that it has an uneven mixture of shells, seaweed, and sand.

The young chemists made solutions by mixing three chemicals into water and measuring the heat produced. The first chemical dissolved was sodium chloride, followed by calcium chloride, and ending with ammonium nitrate. With sodium chloride there was little to no difference in temperature; with calcium chloride it was evident the water solution heated up quickly; and finally, with ammonium nitrate, the homeschoolers noticed that the solution was actually cooling down rapidly.

The last part dealt with boiling point elevation and freezing point depression. The chemists learned first-hand what happens when salt is added to ice water. It can be compared to what happens when the Department of Transportation salt and brine trucks spread the mixture on the roads: the salt decreases the temperature that it takes for water to freeze.  At first this may not make sense, but if the roads covered with salt create a layer requiring water to be colder than 32⁰ F to freeze, it prevents ice from forming.

After learning the effects salt has on reducing the freezing point, the young scientists got buckets of ice water, spread a pinch or so of salt over the ice and laid a piece of string on top. After a few minutes, the ice began to clump together around the string and held fast. Each person lifted their string out of the water. The idea was that the ice cubes would be stuck to the string; however, results for this particular experiment were mixed.

The favorite experiment of the day included pouring orange juice into a small Ziploc bag, which was placed inside a larger Ziploc bag containing ice and lots of table salt. They were instructed by Mr. Bob to shake the bags for five minutes, or until the OJ had turned into a slushy. With a lower freezing point the very cold water froze the orange juice quickly.  Once it had transformed, the homeschoolers were allowed to consume the product they created using the principles of chemistry. YUM!

Young chemists making delicious orange slushies.

Chemists making delicious orange slushies.

Our chemistry series will end next Wednesday, however, if you want to stay informed for future programs, head to the Museum’s website and sign up today!

Homeschool Chemistry 101 – Day 2

March 13, 2014

Introduction to Chemistry

By Daniel H. Vestal, AmeriCorps Museum Investigate Lab Educator

Wednesday, March 12, 2014, was the second day of our Chemistry series. Our returning young chemists revisited the structure of an atom and practiced guessing elements. They used element boards to simulate different atomic electron configurations. Holly, our chemist/volunteer, explained how electrons are transferred and shared.

We learned how ionic and covalent bonds are formed from these shared or transferred electrons. Ionic bonding is the transfer of electrons and covalent bonding is the sharing of electrons. For instance, hydrogen is too small to be on its own, so it “wants” to share electrons with a partner. So for H2O or water, two hydrogen atoms will share their single electron with one oxygen atom. Because this creates polarity in the molecule, water is able to stick together. This led to our first experiment dealing with surface tension!

Mr. Bob, the staff educator, explained how insects such as water striders and whirligig beetles make a living using water tension to glide across the surface to catch prey. As an activity to understand the power of water tension, the homeschooled chemists inverted cups of blue tinted water, covered only with a screen, and a rubber band. To their amazement, the water stayed in the cup!

A young chemist surprised by a meniscus discovery.

A young chemist surprised by a meniscus discovery.

Another experiment allowed the scientists to use milk and food dye to demonstrate what happens when water tension fails. They poured 100 milliliters of milk into a large Petri dish while the room assistants placed a drop of food color: red, green, blue and yellow into the milk. Next, a cotton swab was dipped in liquid dish detergent. They gently touched the detergent to each drop of food color on the surface of the milk. They watched as the colors “exploded” away in different directions! This created some beautiful, liquid tie-dye creations that were preserved by placing a pre-cut piece of paper on top of the milk. The dye soaked the paper and was later moved to a spot to dry.

Food dye and milk mixture creates a tie-dye appearance.

Food dye and milk mixture creates a tie-dye appearance.

The last topic covered was phase changes in the states of matter, which are solids, liquids, and gases. A triangle is used to illustrate how solids can melt into liquids, and liquids can evaporate into a gas. When cooled the gas becomes liquid again, and with further cooling may freeze back into a solid.

What is undetectable to the human eye are the molecules bouncing around fast or slow depending on the state of matter. Gas molecules are moving around the fastest while solid molecules are moving the slowest. With gas being the fastest, the last experiment left an impact on the students.

Each student held a nearly empty soda can over a burner. When steam was seen billowing from the opening, they quickly overturned the can into an ice bath. With the rapid cooling of the less dense air inside, the much denser outside air pressing in, the can immediately and loudly imploded, much to the delight of everyone.

Class number 2 was a success due to the covalent bond between the students and instructors teaching them. It was apparent that students had become positively charged about Chemistry!  Join us for one of these classes in the Natural World Investigate lab by pre-registering on our website.

Homeschool Chemistry 101 – Day 1

March 8, 2014

Introduction to Chemistry

By Daniel H. Vestal, AmeriCorps Museum Investigate Lab Educator

Wednesday, March 5, 2014, marked the beginning of the four-part Chemistry series entitled, “Whiz, Bang, Ewww!”  A total of 20 homeschooled students began their class by getting individually fitted for lab coats and goggles. Some of the topics covered were volumetrics, density, siphoning, states of matter, and chemical versus physical changes.

Chemistry was lead by Museum staff educator, Bob Alderink, with assistance from myself, AmeriCorps member Daniel Vestal. The students got to meet two chemists, Dr. Holly Schiltz and PhD student Katey Huston, who share a passion for science and volunteer their time assisting in the Natural World Investigate lab.

During the first half of class we covered laboratory glassware (beakers, graduated cylinders, Erlenmeyer flasks, volumetric flasks, pipettes, and test tubes) and their different uses. We learned how to read a meniscus, the curved upper surface of a liquid column. We briefly covered states of matter like solids, liquids, and gases.

In scientific disciplines, such as chemistry, researchers most commonly use the metric system because it is universally used around the globe, and in my opinion easier to convert among measurements. Students explored density using multi-colored fresh and salt water. To create the salt water they crushed samples of rock salt with mortars and pestles, and then mixed the crushed rock salt with red food color and water. Using pipettes, they were then able to distribute the salt water into their test tubes.

Father Helping Son

Father helping son.

They also transferred blue fresh water (carefully) into the half-filled red test tubes. Students witnessed the difference in densities of the two liquids. Salt water, being denser, remained on the bottom while less dense fresh water floated on top. Then to confirm the results, students covered the test tubes with their fingers and inverted the tubes, only to see the two liquids immediately mix and turn purple! Another water experiment had them siphoning yellow-colored water into a beaker that contained red food coloring, which then changed into orange (sort of).

Two future chemists siphoning liquids.

Two future chemists siphoning liquids.

After all the water experiments were finished, these enthusiastic young chemists learned states of matter, atoms, and even used beans to create an “element”. They discovered the anatomy of an atom: protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons are positively charged, neutrons are neutral, electrons are negatively charged, and the protons and neutrons together make up the nucleus while the electrons “zip” around the nucleus. Concerning atoms, the students were introduced to the periodic table of elements. They learned that each element displayed was identifiable by its atomic number. The atomic number refers to the number of protons in an atom while the atomic mass is the number of protons and neutrons combined. During the bean activity, homeschoolers used black beans as protons, white beans as neutrons, and lentils as the electrons to create their own atom/element from the periodic table. Once they built their atoms, fellow classmates took turns guessing which element they had created. The climax of the class came near the end, when chemical and physical changes were discussed.

“Chemical versus physical” was a hit; one demonstration that really lit up students’ eyes was when propane bubbles (in a soapy pan) were set ablaze in a flash. Continuing the show, attendees received balloons filled with baking soda and flasks filled with vinegar… then they mixed the two together. It blew their minds, besides inflating the balloon with carbon dioxide.

The grand finale was electric!  The students gathered in the back room, and the lights were darkened. Then with inflated balloons, students rubbed the balloons against their hair to create static, a negative charge on the balloon. Just witnessing the hairs standing up on their heads was funny sight to see. Once the room darkened, they held compact fluorescent light bulbs in one hand and touched the negatively charged balloon against the bulb. It looked like large fireflies setting off their abdomens in harmony. Why did this happen?  The electrons from the balloon excited the gas in the bulb. The atoms in the gas reacted to this influx of energy to create an illuminating discharge for a millisecond.

This introductory experience to chemistry was an equation perfectly balanced with part fun and part hands-on learning, making a concoction these young scientists will never forget!

Future chemists.

Future chemists.

Finding Your Way

March 7, 2014

A Look Into Maps, Coordinates, and Grids

By Daniel H. Vestal, AmeriCorps Museum Investigate Lab Educator

Even though this class had been delayed a few times because of ice and snow this class was on point! Eleven students, plus education staff, volunteers and myself, an AmeriCorps member, all gathered at the predetermined coordinates …The Natural World Investigate Lab on February 19, 2014.

These young explorers practiced the basics of reading maps, grids, coordinates, longitude and latitude with a brief history of the science. Participants even built an Ottoman/quadrant sun compass combo for their take-home activity. Using this combined navigational tool, students will be able to find north and their latitude. So they’ll never be lost!

Quadrant and Ottoman activity

Quadrant and Ottoman sun compass activity

These student explorers also participated in an activity where they used laminated paper clocks to determine their longitude on a map. Once the coordinates were marked and positions verified, the dots were connected, and to their surprise it spelled out “WOW”!

"WOW" displayed on the map of the world.

“WOW” displayed on the map of the world.

The animated instructors were enthusiastic and able to capture each individual’s attention with the assistance of a PowerPoint presentation, humor, and fun hands-on activities.

If I were a future visitor, I know where I’d navigate to … the Natural World Investigate Lab!


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