Saturday, July 9, 2011

Calling all scientists! Please help connect kids with science!

Are you a scientist in or near Stillwater, Oklahoma? 
Would you like to share your research with a curious and appreciative audience?
Would you like your work to inspire a new generation of scientists and science supporters?
Would you like your work to inspire a brand new song?

If so, please participate in "Born to Do Science!"

*** Our 2011/2012 season is scheduled!! But you can still respond to this post to participate in the 2012/2013 season. Thanks! ***

This is a program for kids (3rd-6th grade) and families which I present at the Stillwater Public Library. Each month I bring in a volunteer guest scientist to share their research with the kids. I think it's important for kids to meet scientists face to face, find out what they do, and learn something about the process of scientific investigation! 

If you haven't presented your work to kids before, don't worry. It's my job as host to learn about your research and figure out how to present it to our audience. I have a Master's degree in mathematics, a deep interest in science, and more than 20 years experience communicating to kids as a children's musician. My past guests and I have successfully presented some very sophisticated topics, including bacterial biofilms, wheat genomics, x-ray crystallography, luminescence dating, stress hormones, phototaxic bacteria - you get the idea!

You can see photos and descriptions of past programs on the website:

I will also write and perform a brand new song inspired by your research to help introduce the topic. You can check out some past songs here:

If you aren't sure that your research topic will work for kids, please don't rule yourself out. Talk to me first, and maybe we can find a way to present it.

Your time commitment would include the following:

1. A 30-45 minute phone conversation with me sometime soon to help decide the focus of our program, title, and description, for publicity purposes.

2. A one to two hour interview with me about your research, one month before the program date. This is to get me started on a song and a plan for the program.

3. As much time as you choose to spend preparing hands-on materials and/or visuals and answering follow-up questions between the interview and the program.

4. About 90 minutes for the program itself.

Below is the schedule for our fourth season. Please contact me if you'd like to participate in season five!

Programs will be held the following Saturdays at 10:00 AM at the Stillwater Public Library. 
(tentative titles)

September 17 - Vaccination Innovation
October 15  - The Intrepid White-Footed Mouse
November 19 - Secrets of the Universe
December 17 - Popular Teens - Friendly or Mean?
January 21 - This is Your Brain on Words
February 18 - Digesting Sunshine
March 10 - My One and Only Vole
April 21 - Predators, Prey, and the Games They Play!
May 19 - The Fungus Among Us!

If you are interested, please contact me! I'll be happy to answer any questions you might have, hear about your research and help you decide if it would make a good "Born to Do Science" program.

Thank you!!

Monty Harper
(405) 624-3805

Citizen Science and "Bee Buffet"

Our last program of the Spring 2011 season, May 21, was "Bee Buffet," with Dr. Janette Steets from the OSU Botany Department. She spoke about her research on pollinators in vegetable gardens.

Dr. Steets is interested in finding out how gardens are effected when food plants (like tomatoes and okra) are intermixed with ornamentals (flowers). The hypothesis is that ornamental plants will attract a greater variety of insects, including pollinator and predator species, and that this will result in more healthy food plants with higher yields, and will reduce the need for pesticides.

Dr. Steets has run a couple of preliminary studies that showed promising results. We talked about how one would go about designing a larger study that might help verify the higher yields she saw in her mixed gardens. Dr. Steets is preparing a study now that will incorporate help collecting data from "citizen scientist" volunteers.

I debuted a new song, "Citizen Scientist" - see below for lyrics.

Studying bees and flowers close up, to see how pollen gets moved around when plants are pollenated. 

Dr. Steets brought seeds and planters so we could plant our own samples to grow at home.

Planting seeds.

Me, Dr. Steets, and Brook Bonner. Brook is a PHD student who works with Dr. Steets. She came along to help with the presentation.

The "citizen scientist" aspect of Dr. Steets work is part of what makes her excited to be doing what she's doing. She loves the idea of involving regular folks like you and me in the scientific process. So do I! There are lots of citizen scientist projects out there that you can take part in! That's why I chose "Citizen Scientist" as the title and focus for my song this time around.

Citizen Scientist
My garden this year is a jumbled-up kind
My cow peas and daisies are all inter-twined
My botanist friend had me plant 'em just so 
She's collecting the data that may help her show
How a good mix of plants brings more insects afield
And maybe more bugs means a healthier yield
And I jumped at the chance to take part in her plan
Cause I'm happy to help when I can
I'm a citizen scientist
Citizen scientist
Joining the planet-wide dance
That helps human knowledge advance
I've weighed my tomatoes and measured the plants
I've counted the cutworms and spiders and ants
My botanist friend takes the data all down
She'll compare it with gardens from all over town
And maybe the numbers will show us the way
Toward gardening well without pesticide spray
But whether or not her study bares any fruit
It has still been a worthwhile pursuit
repeat chorus
And when the garden has been tilled, 
What new project will I do?
I can help explore the cosmos 
For the Galaxy Zoo
I can sift through tiny fossils from mastodon times
I can try to fold some proteins with online
In the Great Backyard Bird Count I can help keep track of birds
I’ll download SETI@home and search for alien words
And for more exotic projects I don't know about yet
I'll visit science for citizens dot net
I'll visit science for citizens dot net
repeat chorus

Here are links to the projects I mention in the song:

Galaxy Zoo
Mastodon Matrix Project
The Great Backyard Bird Count
Science For Citizens


Dr. Lack took this video at his January 15, 2011 Born to Do Science program, "Tangling With Twisters," and I thought I'd share it here.

song lyrics by Monty Harper

Psychology, can you tell me what’s wrong with me?

I see eyes looking at me and I get distressed
I feel uptight and anxious, mad and depressed
I hear voices behind me that whisper and mock
No one smiles when I smile; no one listens when I talk
I don’t sleep well at all cause I think of my job
And I dream I’m attacked by an unruly mob
Is there some kind of name for the trouble I’ve got?
Can science explain? Am I crazy or what?

Psychology, can you tell me what’s wrong with me?
Psychology, can you tell me what’s wrong with me?

I’ve been looking in books for some self-diagnosis
I’ve read about phobias, fears, and neurosis
Obsession, repression, fixation, and trauma
Was it nature or nurture that caused all this drama?
I set out to measure the person I am
And I filled out a long psychometric exam
I wanna understand but I’m losing my nerve
I’m afraid I won’t land on the bell of the curve

Oh, yes the human mind is acutely arcane
Couched in the convoluted human brain
It comes without a manual or a guarantee
So we study that puzzle with Psychology

Psychology, can you tell me what’s wrong with me?
Psychology, can you tell me what’s wrong with me?

Gotta go now - my day is about to begin
My seventh grade students are jostling in
I see eyes looking at me and I get distressed
I feel uptight and anxious, mad and depressed
I hear voices behind me that whisper and mock
No one smiles when I smile; no one listens when I talk
I’ll be teaching all day with this chalk in my hand
And tonight two more lessons will need to be planned
But with every spare moment I happen to find
I will ponder the question that’s still on my mind

Psychology, can you tell me what’s wrong with me?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Head Boppin Lizard Talkin

Continuing my retroactive posting on past programs...

On March 19 we had what may have been our most popular program to date. Dr. Matt Lovern from the OSU Zoology Department spoke about his research on green anoles in "Head Boppin Lizard Talkin!"

The anoles communicate to one another by nodding their heads in particular patterns. Dr. Lovern has identified three distinct head bobs, which he calls A B and C. One might think this would give the lizards a three-word vocabulary. But careful observation shows that the lizards' use of the patterns is more subtle than that. Males and females use the same pattern to mean different things in different contexts. And, when it comes right down to it there are only two things the lizards need to say to one another; "This is my territory. Go away," or "Hey, baby! Come over here!"

So why has nature preserved three different signals when it seems like only one or two would do? Maybe there is more to this than meets the eye! Dr. Lovern will likely continue watching lizards bob their heads for as long as it takes to decode the true motivation behind this unique animal behavior.

Dr. Lovern and one of his anoles (I'm not saying which is which) in front of a bank of lizard tanks in the biology building. I took this photo after our interview, preparing for the program.

We started the program by watching films of lizards to see what we could observe.

After the program kids gathered around Dr. Lovern for an up-close and personal lizard encounter. 

Since the anoles use head-bopping to indicate interest in - shall we say "hooking up," I decided to look to the early Beatles love songs for inspiration. The result was a super-fun song, which my wife, Lisa, and daughter, Evalyn, helped perform with backing vocals, egg shakers, hand claps - the works!

Anole in Love
When I put my dewlap out
I’m hoping you will see
How my head bobs up and down
To make you think of me
I’m an anole in love with you
Why don’t you show you love me too?
My head nods so fervently
When I see you there
Won’t you nod yours back to me
Show me that you care
I’m an anole in love with you
Why don’t you show you love me too? 
I’m a green anole
You’re a green anole
We both know the language of love
Little things you said
With your bobbing head
Let me know that I’m the green anole you’re dreaming of
So I will approach you now
My dewlap is on fire
We will be together now
As long as I desire
doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doot
doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doot
doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doot
Repeat bridge
Well I’ve got to go for now
Lovely as it’s been
In about a week or so
Why don’t you come around again
I’m an anole in love with you

Mysterious Algae of the Great Salt Plains

Well, here we are in the middle of summer, and I'm just now getting around to posting about February's program! Better late than never, right? I've got to bring this blog up to speed because I'm planning an exciting new season starting in September... more on that soon.

February 26, 2011 we had Dr. Bill Henley from the OSU Botany Department talking about the "Mysterious Algae of the Great Salt Plains." This algae is able to grow where nothing else would want to; out on the salt plains near Jet, Oklahoma. The water there gets as salty as it is possible to be, and the summer sun heats the ground like an oven. Yet these algae are able to survive and thrive!

Dr. Henley hopes the unique abilities of these algae will eventually prove useful in the manufacture of biofuels. But first he needs to understand how they work. He is trying to find out what elements are essential to this algae's survival. Do they need the heat to survive the salt? Do they need the salt to survive the heat? He hasn't yet worked out the right combination to allow them to thrive in the lab under similar conditions to those found on the salt plains. That's how science goes sometimes - you just have to keep trying different strategies until you hit on the right one.

As usual, I started things off with a song. See below for lyrics...

Dr. Henley shows us that algae are a wildly diverse group of organisms.  

Each kid got to take home a vial with algae in it to see if it would grow. Anybody have results to report?
My new song for this program was inspired by Dr. Henley's story about the day he discovered there were algae growing on the salt plains. His footsteps were breaking through the surface crust of salt, and he turned around to see green stuff in the water seeping in to fill the prints. This unexpected discovery lead to years of study and research!

Mysterious Algae of the Great Salt Plane (Green Footprint)

Leaning into the wind in the Oklahoma heat
Salt crust crunching beneath his feet
The biologist walked the flat white land
Shading his eyes from the sun with his hand
No grass no brush no bramble no tree
Sparkling salt was all the life he could see
Little did he know that something lay concealed
Until he took a look back at what his boot had revealed!

He’d left a green footprint
Where the surface of salt gave way
He’d left a green footprint
And out of the blue dawned a red letter day
For he could hardly contain the buzz in his brain
Having found a living algae on lifeless terrain!
He’d left a green footprint
In the middle of the Great Salt Plain!

He peered through his lens at a microscope slide
The algae he was growing in salt had died
So how could it live in its natural brine?
Perhaps it needed salt and searing sun combined?
First heat then salt. First salt then heat.
He tested every stressor the algae might meet
To discover how it weathered salty water intact
He knew the answer would come thanks to one funny fact

Repeat Chorus

And there are many people studying algae
Working on a way to make bio-fuel
So now he’s hoping to find that his salt resistant kind
Will do its part to help the planet cool

He'll leave a green footprint
On his journey of a thousand trials
He'll leave a green footprint
Using algae energy for low-carbon miles
Yeah, if the oil he can drain from that salt-loving strain
Can become a cheaper cleaner kind of high-octane
He'll leave a green footprint
Using algae from the great salt plain