Inside the Mommyvan

Homeschooling & Life Inside the Mommyvan - an old dog learning new tricks


My kids, like my husband and I, are fascinated with anything that has to do with outer space. We kicked off our school year with a star party at Kennedy Space Center during the Perseids meteor shower, and the educational activities that UF Astronomy students provided really inspired me to find ways to make science more interesting this year.

One thing that really caught the attention of my crew during the KSC visit was that a few different people talked about the “Mars generation” — that the first astronauts to travel to Mars are, right now, kids around their age. I thought I’d capitalize on this surge of interest, and a little poking around on NASA’s websites found a page chock full of Mars resources for educators. The main Mars Exploration site is another good starting point, and NASA’s main educational resources page if you have interests outside of just the red planet.

You’re in training, I told them. If you want to be the first humans on Mars, now is the time to start learning all you can about your mission. They’re eating it up. Even when it’s about side topics like what’s up with all those GPS satellites?

A big hit has been the Surviving and Thriving on Mars [PDF, 5.3Mb] activity booklet. Color printing makes a striking front-and-back cover page holding 16 (B&W) pages of games, coloring, puzzles, and Mars facts.

Destination: Mars [PDF, 1.1Mb] from Johnson Space Center has activity guides for teachers/parents and worksheet pages for students on everything from orbital dynamics to imaginary Martians.

I loved the Mars Match game [PDF, 4,2Mb] from the Phoenix Mars Mission robotics lessons page. We got into a great discussion about how scientists can figure things out about places we can’t get to ourselves from images alone, and what other types of data they use to answer questions about what might be happening on planets in our solar system and elsewhere!

If you have access to Discovery Education videos, Red PlanetRover [43 min.] is a great addition to these activities, following the Curiosity rover and the NASA engineering and science teams through the first 200 days of its mission.

Science is, for me, the easiest subject to make into interesting learning that they maybe don’t even realize is schoolwork, but it still takes some imagination and some preparation. NASA has a wealth of resources that make all of that even easier!

We spent some time at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa yesterday. One topic of discussion this morning was the high-wire bike, and why the kids woule never ever go on it.

We did a little science project about center of mass and how it affects balancing, and now they can’t wait to ride!


We got our copy of Adventures with Atoms and Molecules in the mail last week, and I couldn’t wait to try it out.

I love that it has simple, straightforward experiments that demonstrate physical and chemical principles, without asking kids to figure out concepts that are far above their level of knowledge. There are plenty of science experiment books out there, and this is an important thing to remember when using any of them. At this age (we’re ramping up for 2nd grade), students need to observe, record, and learn from the experiments. These activities shouldn’t be “magic tricks” that are never explained, nor should they be unfathomable mysteries.

This morning we watched (groups of) molecules move and talked about the differences between how the molecules move in warm water, cool water, and ice:




Kids love to play with magnets, and there are some great learning experiences to be had with even a small educational magnet kit.

Those iron filings, though. They create such a beautiful illustration of magnetic fields for young and old alike, but the potential for a disastrous mess–especially with younger students–makes me dread even opening the container.


Until today’s brainstorm: my trusty Ziploc bags to the rescue! I dumped the iron filings into a large (gallon-size) zipper bag and sealed it up. With the help of a paper plate or thin piece of cardboard, I can now make those beautiful field line images, and even let the kids fool around with them, with no mess!


This is the magnet kit we’re using. It comes with a bar magnet, two sizes of horseshoe magnets, iron filings, and a batch of small steel pellets that are great for comparing the strength of different magnets.

What’s going on here? Illicit spinning in Daddy’s office chair? No, it’s science class!


They learned to say “conservation of angular momentum” and observed its effects. I explained, briefly, what it all meant and gave the old twirling ice skater example. Then we flung the chair around a few more times. I do try to avoid sucking all the fun out of these moments by turning them into school. Of course this particular subject will come up again eventually with vectors and equations and whatnot, but they’re never too young for a little classical mechanics, right?

Will they remember any of my explanations? Probably not… but maybe, someday, there will be an exam question on the topic and their memories 20130105-204811.jpg will flash back to a night long ago, way past bedtime, giggling and spinning and falling in a pile on our bedroom floor, and that will make all the difference.

Speaking of science, I found a science book / curriculum that I think I love. From my reading so far I really like the approach. In the early years it builds up the major areas of science (at this level: the nature of matter, life science, physical science, and earth & space science) simultaneously from the most basic building blocks, tying together the areas where it makes sense to do so. Most importantly, it aims to teach students to think, not just to memorize, leading to (one hopes) lifelong, inquisitive, enthusiastic learners.

The book is Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, and it is volume 1 of a three-volume set which I hope will take us right through the middle school years.

This is far from a boxed curriculum, and upon my initial read-through seems that it requires a certain level of knowledge (or at least willingness to learn in advance of the lesson) from the educator, whether that be parent or school / co-op teacher. It also requires materials and prep-work for the lessons themselves, but in return offers detailed explanations, small-group questions and discussion topics, take-homes (for traditional school or co-op teachers), suggested books for further reading, connections to higher-level followup topics, and even standards information, for those to whom that is necessary.

At $10 a pop for the Kindle versions (links below – don’t forget my favorite Kindle feature: free sample chapters!), you can’t afford not to at least check these out if you’re teaching science anywhere from K – 8th grade:

If you dn’t have a Kindle yet, I highly recommend the Kindle Paperwhite. The “special offers” (ads) are unobtrusive, and you can shell out the extra $$ at any time to turn them off. It’s small, has its own light, but maintains the matte (no glare) screen of its predecessors for easy reading anywhere from a dark bedroom to bright sunlight. I was a paper-book purist for a while, but having an entire library at my fingertips has ruined me.

Since our visit to the land of seasons (as much as I love wearing t-shirts in January, I do get a bit homesick between Labor Day and Christmas :)) coincided with a co-op class assignment involving leaves, we went out collecting yesterday. Although fall is just getting underway here, we found plenty of fallen leaves ranging from still-green to crunchy brown, with all of the beautiful yellows, reds, oranges and purples in between.

As we sorted through our stash, we learned a little about what makes leaves change color and fall off — this was one of those lessons where I learned almost as much as the kids! I helped with the writing as they filled in the observation pages that made up their homework assignment, comparing two leaves using sight, smell, sound, and touch, 20120916-121114.jpgand then we took it one step further. A roll of wax paper and an iron allowed us to preserve the leaves we used for the observation sheet and also make some pretty pictures with the rest.

I remember doing this (and the crayon-shavings version) as a child, but I haven’t seen it in a long time. Cheap & easy lamination and clear contact paper seem to have replaced this method for most things, but it was fun to let the kids lay out their leaves and then help with the ironing. If you try this, use a piece of parchment or kraft paper, or a scrap piece of fabric, beneath and on top of the wax paper & leaf sandwich to protect your iron and ironing board.