Making Connections in Nature – Bats, Moose, and Prickly Pear…Oh My!

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” John Burroughs

How could one teacher be so lucky?  This summer I was fortunate enough to come face to face with two special animals in the wild that have been on my “bucket list” of nature connections for, really, most of my life.

It was well past midnight as we drove through the Palmer Hay Flats in Alaska in late June, and with summer solstice in full swing, my eyes were having a hard time adjusting to the changes in light.  I was very sleepy as my friend, Sara Lamont, longtime Iditarod coordinator, drove me into the backwoods she knows so well.  We were on the hunt to spot moose in the wild, a lifelong dream.  I remember the feeling of elation when we spotted our first mother and calf.  I felt adrenaline all over my body as we pulled up slowly to see them grazing.  The mother was protective right away and turned and glided through the tall grass with her calf beside her and disappeared into the woods almost without a sound.  It was the most remarkable moment.  There is nothing like witnessing an animal in its own natural world.  As a human being, you feel oddly out of place in those moments, and as John Burroughs once said, I had “my senses put in order.”  It was all the more magical because of the falling darkness that felt like a strange, eerie twilight.

Coming home to Texas, I had my second animal encounter with a visit to Bracken Cave, outside of Austin.  “Keep Austin Weird” is the theme for our city, and with no wonder!  We love our Mexican-free Tailed Bats that live under the Congress Avenue Bridge during the warm months of the year.  Each summer night, over a million bats emerge from their safe, cozy roosts and fill up our city sky.  Each bat can eat 100 insects a night, so they are a welcomed site for “Austinites”.  Bat Conservation International was founded here in Austin, and on this special night in July, I was fortunate to be given permission as a BCI member to see one of the greatest bat emergences on Earth.

It was well over 100 degrees in the Texas heat as we walked past prickly pear cactus to the entrance of Bracken Cave. I gasped as I first noticed the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pups flying wildly outside the cave entrance, while their mothers had patience until sundown to join them, roosting on the cave walls.  They flew with wild abandon, like impatient children, but as the mother bats  joined them, the most remarkable change happened.  The wild, chaotic flying started to form a giant mass of one counter-clockwise formation, getting bigger and faster as night fell.  The mass of 20 million bats began to pull away from the circle and spiral into formations in the sky.  Joining the bats were their predators.  Hawks flew in and out of the spiraling mass, clutching bats with their sharp talons, a snake slithered along the cave ridge, hoping for an easy meal, and a mother skunk brought her babies to the cave floor, searching for unfortunate pups who had fallen to the ground.  This was strangely not a disturbing sight; it was the cycle of nature right before our eyes, and all seemed right.

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The 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ in a bat selfie!

“Cup your hands to your ears!” my sister nudged me.  I noticed others doing the same, and even though I felt a little silly, I went along.   When I put my hands to my ears they turned into a natural headphone.  I squealed with delight.  The gentle, beautiful sound of 40 million fluttering bat wings was like nothing I had ever heard before.  There are no word to describe it.  It affected my soul, and I know we all felt connected to these animals in a special way.

This special gathering at Bracken Cave is the largest concentration of mammals on Earth.  Think about that!  I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity, and I wish to return each summer to experience it with my family and friends.

Did you know?  There are bats in Alaska!  The Little Brown Bat, the Long-legged Myotis, the California Myotis, the Silver-haired Bat, and the Keen’s Myotis all make their elusive way into the southern parts of Alaska, and they are all important, as insect eaters, to the ecosystem there.

As a teacher I am always looking for ways to make connections with my students and the world.  Returning from my moose and bat encounters, I wondered if there was a way to do that.  It turns out, there is!

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 12.18.28 PMiNaturalist is an incredible web-based site and app that allows anyone, child, adult, serious scientist or teacher, to make connections with the flora and fauna of their local habitat, then share them with the world.

The iNaturalist site describes its objective like this:

“From hikers to hunters, birders to beach-combers, the world is filled with naturalists, and many of us record what we find. What if all those observations could be shared online? You might discover someone who finds beautiful wildflowers at your favorite birding spot, or learn about the birds you see on the way to work. If enough people recorded their observations, it would be like a living record of life on Earth that scientists and land managers could use to monitor changes in biodiversity, and that anyone could use to learn more about nature.”

I set up my free account, recorded my photos of the moose in Alaska and the Mexican-free Tailed pup in Texas, and the site added the google map and scientific information for me!  Now my observations are there for anyone in the world to see.  There is also a space to journal about your experiences, much like an old-fashioned science paper notebook.  This digital application has remarkable opportunities for the classroom.  My class will be comparing and contrasting the animals and plants of Alaska and Texas, and since my students are under 13 years of age, I will set up a teacher account.   We can then use our class account to begin documenting our local wildlife.  Perhaps we can connect with a school in Alaska and share observations?  The opportunities are endless.

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Now, these rare and special moments with nature can be shared with others, bringing us all closer, and inspire others to care about the world a little more.

Why Calories are Important

"The journey has to be based on passion. Put yourself in something you love to do. If you love what you do you're able to dedicate yourself, overcome obstacles." - Rickson Gracie

“The journey has to be based on passion. Put yourself in something you love to do. If you love what you do you’re able to dedicate yourself, overcome obstacles.” – Rickson Gracie

Many people record and track the number of calories they consume daily since an increasing amount of tools and apps have become available. It seems like everyone knows the exact number of calories they should consume and burn per day.  Why are they tracking calories?  Why are calories important to your body?  Through this lesson, my students discovered how important calories really are.

I posed a number of questions for my students to ponder. What is a calorie? How many calories do you consume? How many are you supposed to consume? How many calories does an Olympic swimmer consume? How many calories does an Iditarod sled dog consume? The objective of this lesson was for students to compare their caloric intake to that of an Olympic athlete and Iditarod sled dog. The results were very interesting.

This lesson required students to reflect about what they eat and drink during a day along with any exercise achieved. We started out by discussing what a calorie is and the importance of calories. A calorie is a unit of energy.  Any physical activity requires a great deal of energy. Our body, and a sled dog’s body, needs energy to build and keep muscle. The students were to keep this in mind as they were working on the activity.

After calculating the amount of calories they think a person their age should consume during a day they went online to find out. They were fairly accurate. Next, it was time for them to really reflect on their health. We used an app called Diet Diary to record an entire day’s worth of eating and drinking. The students also recorded any exercise they completed. The idea behind this is to notice how many calories they truly consume along with how many they burn.

The task for the students was to create a Prezi, highlighting the differences in caloric intake between themselves, their Olympic athlete of choice, and an Iditarod sled dog. Additionally, they would be sharing their favorite food and how much of that item it would take to reach the amount of calories each person/dog needed.

Vern Halter's (Dream a Dream Dog Farm) dogs taking a snack and water break on a summer tour run.

Vern Halter’s (Dream a Dream Dog Farm) dogs taking a snack and water break on a summer tour run.

The dogs are ready to get back at it.

The dogs are ready to get back at it.

Reflecting afterwards we saw some interesting data.  Some kids consumed over 4,000 calories/day.  Others consumed less than 2,000.  Some Olympic athletes only needed to consume 3,000 calories/day, while others need to consume over 10,000, depending on their sport.  Iditarod sled dogs need to consume approximately 10,000 calories/day, too.  Our discussion led us to why it is necessary for some to consume so many calories.  We  reviewed what a calorie is again and how much energy is required for certain sports. It was very fascinating listening to all the conversations as they found out how much certain athletes “get” to eat while performing.

Why calories are important lesson plan

Student sheet for calories

Caloric intake chart

Caloric intake chart source:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/07/24/157317262/how-many-calories-do-olympic-athletes-need-it-depends

Tales from the Trail: Special Delivery

This year, two mushers will be carrying special packages on their sleds to make a special delivery in Nome.

In order to promote vaccine awareness, Martin Buser and Aliy Zirkle will carry vaccine from Anchorage to Nome.  Vaccines are given to children to help prevent various diseases.  This event is being organized by Lisa Schobert, Vaccine Coordinator and Dawn Sawyer, PA.  The I DID IT BY TWO: Race To Vaccinate program has been working hard to encourage people to have their children immunized.  The program has done several events to promote their cause including providing dog jackets for the Iditarod race dogs on start day, giving families mushing themed charts to track their immunizations, and many more.  The I DID IT BY TWO slogan is to remind families:

I  – Iditarod

DID – Did you know that children need 80% of their childhood vaccines by age 2?

IT – It can seem a little complicated keeping up with recommended immunizations, but the payoff is big!

BY – by immunizing your children on-time by age…

TWO!

Lisa tells me that she chose Martin Buser to help with the project because he has worked with the I DID It By Two group before and is a great spokesman for the campaign.  He will be carrying the DTAP.  This vaccine is given to children between the ages of  two months and six years.  The DTAP is a vaccine given to children to prevent diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough).  The organizers think that with Martin’s playful personality, he may actually pass the vaccines off to other mushers to carry down the trail!  That would be in keeping with the spirit of the original serum run which was actually a relay.

Aliy Zirkle was asked to participate because Lisa wanted a front line contender, and with second place finishes in the last two races, Aliy certainly meets that criteria.  Knowing how competitive she is, Aliy will most likely put the vaccine in her sled and run her race!  She will be carrying Tdap vaccine which is used for adolescents and adults.  Tdap stands for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis and is used for people aged seven and older.

Each musher will get a box of ten vials to transport and they can package them however they would like to.  Each box weighs 2.3 ounces.  This made me think of the classic, “Can you package an egg and drop it off the roof?” science experiment.  So here’s a little Iditarod themed twist on that activity:  Protect that Vaccine

Here are some photos to share with your kids to show what the vials will look like:

The temperatures that the vaccines are stored at are very, very important.  If the vaccines are not kept between 35-46 degrees F they cannot be given to patients.  Lisa explained to me that if the refrigerator door is left open or someone goes in and out of the refrigerator a lot, the inside temperature can be affected.  They use a Data Logger to continually monitor the temperatures of the vaccines as they travel from one location to another.  The logger, which is similar to a thumb drive, can record temperatures for fifty-six days. Then when the vaccines and logger arrive at their final location, the data can be loaded onto the computer and the temperature information can be displayed in a graph form.  My class has been given a data logger to experiment with, but you can replicate this with a basic thermometer and a refrigerator at home or school:  Keeping the Vaccines Cold

Obviously, to many people, the Iditarod has come to serve as a reminder of the 1925 Serum Run.  That was not Joe Redington, Sr.’s main objective though. His main goals in establishing the race were to project the sled dogs and their role in the culture of Alaska and to save the historic Iditarod Trail.  The Serum Run definitely has a huge role in the history of Alaska and the history of the Iditarod Trail, so it’s kind of neat to see this event as a way to bring the message of the importance of immunizations to villages on the trail.  Here is more on the history of the race and the reasons it started from Katie Mangelsdorf:  Bustingmyth

The go-to picture book for kids to learn about the Serum Run is the Great Serum Race by Debbie Miller.  You can also join the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for a Distance Learning Program about Balto. I wrote about that here: LINK

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History has a great PDF file you could print to give some kids the story behind the Serum Run.  It even has a picture of the original vials to compare to the ones Zirkle and Buser will be carrying this year:  LINK

Here’s a Venn Diagram you could use to compare the Serum Run with the modern trip the vaccines will be taking with Aliy and Martin this year.  VennDiagram

For a writing piece, students could write and record radio spots, like public service announcements for the I DID IT BY TWO Campaign.

The official Press Release is here:  January Press Release – Vaccine

You can learn more about this project here:  LINK

I will have more information soon about other mushers who are “mushing for a cause” or using their Iditarod runs to bring awareness about causes near and dear to their hearts!

Petchup or Muttstardt?

As you probably know, we were thrilled to be able to announce to all of our followers that our favorite musher Monica Zappa had gotten a new sponsor:  Petchup.  LINK

So my kids were really intrigued by the whole idea of ketchup and mustard for dogs.  We knew that Monica was experimenting to find out the best way to feed it to her dogs, so we decided to do our own experiment.

Monica told us that she was experimenting to find the best way to use the product with the dogs both in the kennel and on the trail.  At the kennel, she could just mix some with the dogs’ food and they slurped it right up!  On the trail, things may get a bit more complicated.  She is playing with adding it to water in warm races, putting it on the dogs’ kibble, squirting it directly into their mouths, and even making Petchup ice cube pops as a treat.  Monica feels like the product is having a positive impact on her dogs’ energy and overall health.  We were anxious to see if we could add anything to her discoveries.

DSC_0205So first, we needed a subject for our experiment.  Enter Atti, our service dog in training.  Our math and science teacher, Ellen Rizzuto, is training a service dog with the help of our Lower School.  Atti gets used to being around a lot of people and activity and our boys learn how to handle a dog that is working and isn’t to be treated like a pet.

We wanted to see if Atti would prefer Petchup or Muttstard and if she would prefer it alone or on her kibble.

We let the boys smell the two products – the Muttstard is turkey flavored and the Petchup is beef flavored. They made their predictions about which one they thought Atti would prefer.  We put a little of each product in a bowl, showed Atti where they both were, let her smell them both and then let her go…. She chose the Muttstard first and totally devoured it!  She also then devoured the Petchup, so she liked them both, but we think she preferred the Muttstard.  For the second experiment we put a bowl of plain kibble, a bowl of kibble with Muttstard, and a bowl of plain Muttstard out for her to select.  We think the first time she just went to the bowl that was the closest, so we reset it up so the bowls were closer together.  This time she chose the kibble with Muttstard first.  She did eat them all again, but we think her preference was kibble with Muttstard.  So, our recommendation to Monica is to carry Muttstard and squirt some on the dog’s food and they should love it, just like Atti did!

It actually turned out to lead to a very interesting discussion about the fairness of the experiment and how certain we could be of our results. Plus – it’s fun anytime Atti visits us!

More on the Weather

The weather continues to be the big story as we prepare for this year’s Iditarod.  It seems like the world has turned upside down… at least it looks that way on our weather graph!  The line tracking the temperatures in Baltimore keeps dropping down below the lines tracking the Alaska weather!

My students have been learning about Heat Energy with Mrs. Olgeirson, the science teacher, and they invited me in one day as they explored how heat energy affects our bodies.  More specifically, they were looking at how cold affects the rest of your body.  The boys were easily able to make the tie in to the Iditarod and the frigid temperatures the mushers will face (well, we HOPE they will face).

????????The first experiment they did was about how cold affects extremities.  When your toes or fingers get cold, they send a message to your brain to pump more blood to that area.  To test this, the kids wrote their name on a sheet of paper.  They then plunged their hand into a bowl of icy water (about 31 degrees Fahrenheit) for sixty seconds and then tried to rewrite their name.  Their hypothesis that their signatures would be different proved to be very true!  The boys were really surprised about just how hard it was to hold the pencil and write their name when their hand was so cold.  Imagine the mushers who have to care for their dogs’ feet and all their other chores that can’t quite work with gloves on!

The boys wondered how the mushers warm their hands up, and Mrs. Olgeirson pointed out that when your hands and fingers are cold, you should move your fingers and not rub them together.  The friction caused by rubbing your hands together could actually create heat energy that could burn your skin tissue!

How else to keep warm in on the Iditarod Trail?  Well, animals have blubber or fat to help them stay warm, and people wear clothing.  The boys were interested to hear that the clothing doesn’t actually make you warm; it insulates you from the cold.

The students then got a chance to try out the idea of “insulating” their hands from the icy water.  Mrs. Olgeirson created a “blubber mitten” by coating one plastic bag with Crisco and putting it inside a second bag.  The student could then insert their hand into the baggie and plunge it into the ice bath.  The temperature of the ice bath was 28⁰F, but the temperature inside the “blubber mitten” was 60⁰F!

The boys really got the idea about how cold weather can affect our bodies through these easy, but effective experiments!  A special thanks to Mrs. Olgeirson for hitting the trail with science and for sharing her assignment sheet with you!  BLUBBER EXPERIMENT WORKSHEET

Just How Cold is it in Maryland?

Well – at one point yesterday it was colder in Oakland, Maryland than the South2014-01-07 06.21.02 Pole!   At one point it was – 15⁰ in Western Maryland and -7⁰ at the South Pole!

In Baltimore, we didn’t get quite as cold as the South Pole, but we did beat Alaska! For the first time, on our weather graph, the Baltimore line dropped below the lines for Anchorage, Galena, and Nome!

Yesterday’s Temperatures: 

Baltimore:  18⁰ F / 10⁰ F

Anchorage:  27⁰ F/ 18⁰F

Galena:  25⁰ F / 18⁰ F

Nome:  34⁰ F/ 27⁰ F

So, with this historic Polar Vortex hovering overhead, we put our regularly planned lessons on hold and did some “Just How Cold IS Baltimore?” activities and then related them to travel on the Iditarod Trail.

2014-01-07 09.43.58We started off by putting thermometers outside our back door, so we could see just what kind of temperatures we were dealing with.  The thermometer we put on the playground in the shade showed -8⁰ F and the thermometer in the sun showed about 6⁰ F.  The boys were surprised that being in the sun would make that much difference!  We put cups full of water in the same two locations and then checked on them periodically during the day.  The boys originally predicted that the water in the cups would freeze in less than fifteen minutes.  They were surprised when it took the cup in the shade about an hour and a half to freeze solid!  The cup in the sun looked like it was finally frozen at the end of the day, but when we popped the ice out, it turned out that it was only frozen around the edges!  The whole center was still liquid!  We talked about how one thing the Iditarod mushers have to be careful of is making sure they have enough water to drink on the trail.  It’s one of those things you don’t really think about, because usually you think about needing to drink water when you are hot… not when you are cold.  Mushers have to get creative in finding a solution to keeping unfrozen water accessible for their journey.

We also set up an experiment about wind chill.  We set up a tray of water and measured the temperature of the water to be 50⁰ F.  We set up a fan to blow across the top of the water and watched to see what would happen. We were shocked when the temperature dropped 10 degrees in just 2 minutes!  It kept dropping and dropping, until it got down to 32⁰ F about fifteen minutes into the experiment.  The most surprising part?  We let the fan run for the entire rest of the day and the water temperature never got lower than 32⁰ F!  It was a great chance to talk about other factors that came into play and why the water wasn’t freezing even though the temperature said it should be!  We were able to relate this to the Iditarod by talking about the gear the mushers wear and they need to dress for not only warmth, but to be wind proof as well!

But, but far, the biggest hit of the day was the soaking wet sweatshirt!  We took a2014-01-07 09.43.47 sweatshirt and got it soaking wet and then hung it on a hangar in a tree outside our window.  The immediate result was that steam rose off the shirt like crazy!  Then the icicles started to form on the bottom of hem.  We brought it in every five minutes at first to see how hard it was getting and after we decided it was officially “stiff as a board” we just let it sit outside until the end of the day.  The boys were dying to drop it onto the floor.  Half of them thought it was going to shatter and ruin the shirt, the other half thought nothing would happen at all.  So, just before dismissal, we brought it in and climbed up on the table to drop it to the floor.  I wish I had gotten a video!  We dropped it and it landed on the floor standing up on the bottom hem perfectly upright!  It didn’t fall over, it didn’t shatter, it just stood there like a frozen soldier!   It was so funny and their expressions were priceless!  Now they are anxious to see if it the sweatshirt will return to its’ natural soft and cozy state by tomorrow morning.  We tied this into the idea that mushers do NOT want to wear cotton!  They were able to see quite obviously the trouble a musher would get into if they were to run into overflow or water while wearing cotton clothing!

We just did a simple scientific method form for the experiments.  They recorded the question, hypothesis, observations, and then made a conclusion.  It was just a spur of the moment type of day, but it was a whole lot of fun!

Tracking the Weather

“How cold is it going to be in Alaska when you are there?” is the question I seem to be asked most often these days. I decidedthemometer to get my students started on the task of tracking the weather in Alaska and comparing it to what is going on here in Baltimore.  We are creating a line graph of the daily temperatures at the start, around the middle, and at the end of the trail and here in Baltimore.  Each morning two students use a weather app to check the daily high in Anchorage, Galena, Nome, and Baltimore and then add the data to our ongoing graph.  We also decided to add a snowflake stamp to the graph to show the days it snowed!  Unfortunately, we have no snowflakes on the Baltimore data line yet!

It’s a great way to introduce or review line graphs and has led to some super discussions about what the freezing point is, what it means to freeze, and what conditions have to be in play for it to snow.

Another of my favorite things to do with graphing is to have students create a story to go with a graph.  It’s a great twist to present students with a graph that shows data, but no labels or explanations and then to challenge them to tell a story to explain the data.  Here is a lesson plan you can use to have students create Iditarod themed stories to explain a line graph or a pictograph:  The Story Behind the Graph

As always, I’d love to include some student stories in the Student Tales section of the site!  So be sure to send me your awesome Iditarod graph stories!