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Impact is the official blog of Seminars on Science, an online professional development program for educators from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

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Turn Your Smartphone into a Microscope!

posted on 26 Nov 2013 by amnhsemadmin    

Turn Your Smartphone into a Microscope!

Since their invention, microscopes have allowed scientists to discover microorganisms, learn the structure of cells, and observe the smallest parts of plants, animals, and fungi. Unfortunately, microscopes have been confined to laboratories and schools because they are expensive.

Instructables user Yoshinok demonstrates how to build a microscope stand that eliminates the need for costly equipment. With a smartphone and $10 worth of materials, you can make your own microscope for use at home or outside. The step-by-step guide converts any smartphone into a portable, digital, high-powered microscope. This is an affordable way to view magnified objects using smartphone camera capabilities and a few materials from a hardware store.

All you’ll need is a drill, a few nuts and bolts, plywood, and some plexiglass pieces. With these materials, you’ll soon be on your way to assembling a microscope stand that works with your smartphone. Once you have the materials and tools, the whole process takes less than 30 minutes. It involves building a stand with plexiglass slides, then backlighting those slides with an LED. A focus lens from a cheap laser pointer does the magnifying and allows up to 175x of magnification. You can watch the whole demo here.

This level of magnification lets you examine the veins of a leaf, the details of a quarter, or just creates the opportunity to take some awesome macro photography (see below)!  

leaf veins coin close-up

Considering how much a real microscope costs, using a smartphone’s built-in photographic capabilities and $10 worth of material from a hardware store could save you lots of money.

Nobel Prize in Physics

posted on 14 Oct 2013 by Maria Janelli    

Here is the New York Times article (and cool interactive graphic) on the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded for the theoretical elucidation nearly a half century ago of the Higgs boson — the critical linchpin unifying the forces of electromagnetism and radioactive decay as well as the mechanism responsible for the generation of all mass in the universe!

Calling IB Teachers!

posted on 20 Sep 2013 by Maria Janelli    

Hello, from the Seminars on Science team! We hope everyone enjoyed the summer and that the new school year has gotten off to a great start. We had a busy summer here at AMNH. Hundreds of educators from around the country enrolled in our online graduate courses. We built (and recently launched) the first of three professional development courses through our partnership with Coursera. And we’re getting things ready for our Fall session.

When you think about Seminars on Science, most of you probably think about online education. Did you know that we also host blended workshops in partnership with the International Baccalaureate? We offer MYP and PYP workshops in both the Fall and the Spring, and our Fall workshops are just around the corner!

On October 17-19, we’ll be hosting MYP teachers in a workshop about interdisciplinary teaching and learning in the IB. And on November 7-9, we’ll be hosting a PYP workshop about incorporating science into different parts of the curriculum. For both workshops, teachers complete a few hours of work online prior to their arrival. Once they get to the Museum, they spend two and a half days in workshops with IB professional development leaders and Seminars on Science staff. Each day is collaborative, hands-on, and includes lots of behind-the-scenes time in our exhibit halls.

We still have availability in both workshops. If you’re an IB teacher and you’d like to join us in New York for three days, click here to learn more.

IB Workshop @ AMNH

IB Workshop @ AMNH

Coursera is Coming!

posted on 12 Aug 2013 by Maria Janelli    

AMNH is partnering with Coursera, and we’re launching three courses this Fall. Check out this blog post by Dr. Ro Kinzler, our Senior Director of Science Education. We hope you’ll join us on this educational endeavor!

Glow in the Dark Coral

posted on 25 Jul 2013 by Maria Janelli    

When you think of the American Museum of Natural History, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Dinosaurs? Space shows? Dioramas? AMNH has lots of cool things in its collections, most of which are preserved behind-the-scenes or displayed behind exhibit glass. But there are many times when visitors – especially teachers – get to experience the Museum in a hands-on way.

One of the objects we like to use in our professional development workshops is coral. Actually, we use a variety of coral, including tube coral, brain coral, and black coral. We give teachers magnifying glasses and model different observation and documentation activities that they can do with their students. The hands-on parts of our professional development workshops are engaging and educational. But what about teachers who don’t live near the Museum, or who aren’t able to fly to New York to attend one of our workshops? Fortunately, technology can help you bring coral into your own classrooms.

There is a lot of good information about coral reefs readily available online. Recently, we found a video of fluorescent coral at Wired.com. Using fluorescent coral is a great way to teach your students about underwater ecology, ocean systems, and the occurrence of fluorescence in nature. Last year, AMNH hosted a special exhibit called Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence. The exhibit focused on “the extraordinary organisms that produce light, from the flickering fireflies found in backyards across the Northeast to the deep-sea fishes that illuminate the perpetually dark depths of the oceans. Rare among plants and animals that live on land, the ability to glow—that is, to generate light through a chemical reaction—is much more common in the ocean, where up to 90 percent of animals at depths below 700 meters (2,300 feet) are bioluminescent.” The exhibit web site has information about fluorescent coral that you can use with your students.

Additionally, this video was taken off the coast of Egypt, in the Red Sea. The video shows how coral becomes brightly “lit” when certain light shines on it. Few people get to see this phenomenon in person, and the video is a great way to bring this underwater world into your classroom.

Exhibit in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey County, California, USA

Exhibit in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey County, California, USA

Teaching about coral doesn’t have to end with a lecture and a video. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has a collection of teaching resources that you can use as reinforcement activities with your students.

If you’re in New York, or plan on visiting soon, come and check out the corals we have on display in our exhibit halls.

If you’re an International Baccalaureate teacher, we’ll be using coral in our PYP workshop in November, and we’d love to have you join us.

If you want to learn more about ocean life and how it sustains corals, consider taking “The Ocean System,” an online science course for educators that’s part of our Seminars on Science program.

Looking for Life on Mars

posted on 12 Jul 2013 by Maria Janelli    

We’ve written before about the Mars Curiosity Rover several times. Recently, NASA shared its plans for the future of Curiosity. Scientific American blogger Christopher Crocket writes:

“Think of it as Curiosity Plus. Using Curiosity’s design as a starting point, Mars 2020 (as it’s currently known) will be another rover digging around the surface of the red planet. But, this time, rather than just looking for evidence that Mars was once habitable, the robotic explorer will be searching for signs of past life and packing up samples that, someday, will be returned to Earth for analysis.”

The goal for Mars 2020 is to scour the surface of Mars to try to determine whether or not past life existed there. The mission is simple in principle, but not easy. Scientists will choose a particular location on which to land the new rover and pay close attention to the biosignatures in that region. Biosignatures are evidence of life on the planet, such as organic molecules, minerals, or small fossils. If microbial evidence of life is found, soil will be returned to Earth during another mission and analyzed by NASA’s scientists.

NASA is cautiously optimistic. “The Mars 2020 mission concept does not presume that life ever existed on Mars,” said Jack Mustard, chairman of the Science Definition Team and a professor at the Geological Sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “However, given the recent Curiosity findings, past Martian life seems possible, and we should begin the difficult endeavor of seeking the signs of life. No matter what we learn, we would make significant progress in understanding the circumstances of early life existing on Earth and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life.”

Artist’s Concept of Mars 2020 Rover Planning for NASA’s 2020 Mars rover envisions a basic structure that capitalizes on the design and engineering work done for the NASA rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, but with new science instruments selected through competition for accomplishing different science objectives.
Artist’s Concept of Mars 2020 Rover Planning for NASA’s 2020 Mars rover envisions a basic structure that capitalizes on the design and engineering work done for the NASA rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, but with new science instruments selected through competition for accomplishing different science objectives.

It is expected that this fall, scientists will announce a competition for mission instruments. This is an excellent way to incorporate the rover news into your science curriculum when the new school year starts. You could begin by teaching your students about Curiosity’s mission. NASA’s web site is chock full of pictures and reports to help you give your students basic information about the goal, the process, and the findings. After covering the current mission, ask your students to imagine what tools might be needed for the 2020 mission. Could they use the current findings to determine where to land on Mars? Given the regions that have been photographed, what types of tools might be needed for further investigation? Would they try to crack open rocks? Sift through dense patches of soil? This kind of assignment could be done in the classroom or at home. It could be a written report or an art project. It could be an individual assignment or a team effort. And it can be structured to meet the needs of a variety of grades. This kind of project can help your students learn about the connections between the classroom and the real world. And it will be fun to see how the tools they would select stack up against what scientists actually use for the mission.

Artist’s Concept of Mars 2020 Rover
Planning for NASA’s 2020 Mars rover envisions a basic structure that capitalizes on the design and engineering work done for the NASA rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, but with new science instruments selected through competition for accomplishing different science objectives.


View the Earth with EarthViewer

posted on 27 Mar 2013 by Maria Janelli    

In the past, we’ve highlighted several Google tools that allow you and your students to explore hard-to-reach places virtually. This week, we’d like to highlight something similar: The EarthViewer app from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). We first learned about this app from an NSTA blog post by Mary Bigelow. Bigelow roused our curiosity simply by quoting from the HHMI press release:

“Have you ever wanted to go back in time to see what the Earth looked like 400 million years ago? You can with the EarthViewer, a free, interactive app designed for the iPad, that lets users explore the Earth’s history with the touch of a finger by scrolling through 4.5 billion years of geological evolution. The app allows students to see continents grow and shift as they scroll through billions of years – from molten mass to snowball Earth. Students can also explore changes in the Earth’s atmospheric composition, temperature, biodiversity, day length, and solar luminosity over its entire development. The app, developed by HHMI’s BioInteractive team, tracks the planet’s continental shifts, compares changes in climate as far back as the planet’s origin, and explores the Earth’s biodiversity over the last 540 million years. It combines visual analysis with hard data, and helps students make connectionsbetween geological and biological change.”

This fun and educational app allows the user to access climate and carbon dioxide data for the past 100 years as well as continental reconstructions going back billions of years. You can look at how modern cities evolved over time, and zoom in to specific places on the globe. The app is chock full of information about geological and biological events that have affected the Earth over time. To help yourself become familiar with the app, it’s helpful to visit the HHMI EarthViewer app web page. Here, you’ll find a video tour that will help you navigate the images and data within the app. You’ll also find ideas for how to use the app in your classrooms. Two things that make this app a compelling classroom resource are 1) that it was “designed to link across multiple domains of science as called for in the Next Generation Science Standards” and 2) “the data on the EarthViewer App, including the locations of the landmasses, come directly from the primary literature and are based on current scientific knowledge in research arena that is active and constantly being updated and refined.”

Image source: iTunes App Store

Image source: iTunes App Store

Evolution, Lately

posted on 14 Mar 2013 by Maria Janelli    

Have you ever wondered what hominins ate long ago — say, two million years ago? Do you know when human beings figured out how to use fire? When did people invent tools? Can you imagine if women were pregnant for more than nine months? Information about these questions is among some of the most interesting evolution discoveries that were made in the past year. In this Scientific American blog post, Kate Wong provides a list of some pretty cool things that were recently discovered about evolution. The items on the list are fascinating by themselves, but some of them could be easily incorporated into your science curriculum.

Tartar analysis reveals what hominins ate. Source: Scientific American

For example, if you’re teaching your students about Lucy, you could include information about a newly discovered 3.4 million-year-old fossil foot that “suggests a second lineage of hominins (creatures more closely related to us than to our closest living relatives, chimpanzees) may have lived alongside Lucy’s kind.” If you’re teaching about the technology of some of the earliest humans, you can include information about tools that were made 500,000 years ago. Wong’s list isn’t just about bones and tools. Students can also learn about ancient cave paintings that were found in Spain. The Scientific American list is by no means exhaustive. But it’s a good way to get a glimpse of the cool things happening in the field of human evolution.

Virtual Dissection

posted on 4 Mar 2013 by Maria Janelli    

Here at Seminars on Science, we keep our eyes open for interesting ways in which science education and technology intersect. Recently, the folks over at Wired wrote about scientists at the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research, located in Greece, who have recently created a methodology for optimizing worm-imaging. These scientists have published a paper describing their new research. The paper, entitled “Micro-computed tomography: Introducing new dimensions to taxonomy,” was published in ZooKeys. From the paper’s abstract:

“Continuous improvements in the resolution of three-dimensional imaging have led to an increased application of these techniques in conventional taxonomic research in recent years. Coupled with an ever increasing research effort in cybertaxonomy, three-dimensional imaging could give a boost to the development of virtual specimen collections, allowing rapid and simultaneous access to accurate virtual representations of type material.”

In other words, scientists are making huge strides in 3D virtual imaging. In addition to the paper, these scientists have also published videos of their work, which means that teachers can now bring advanced-imaging dissection into their classrooms. Some of these videos are assembled in the Wired article. Teachers can show their students a MicroCT scan of a bi-valve or a crustacean, a virtual dissection of a worm, and more! How would you use these videos with your students?

3D Worm Dissection

3D Worm Dissection

posted on 14 Feb 2013 by Maria Janelli    

Dear Readers,

It’s been a busy couple of months here at the Museum! Like the rest of the tri-state area, we bravely battled Sandy, then grimaced through a nor’easter, and then ran smack into the holiday season and the new year. In the midst of all of this, we conducted online and on-site courses and workshops for educators, began the initial plans to develop an online course about the brain, and, most excitingly, we migrated our flagship Seminars on Science courses to a new learning management system called Moodle.

On January 28th, we launched our first six courses in this new platform: Climate Change; Space, Time and Motion; The Ocean System; The Solar System; Evolution; and Genetics, Genomics, Genethics. Students enrolled in these courses now have a friendlier and more dynamic user interface, better personal profile customization options, newly organized and updated resources, and an online checklist of course requirements to help them better manage their assignment submissions and course participation.

During the next six weeks, we will continue to migrate the rest of our courses so that our entire portfolio will be available in Moodle. We are also putting together a demo course so that those interested in taking our courses can view sample resources and participate in open discussion forums. As we continue to develop this next chapter of Seminars on Science, we will be able to leverage the technological affordances of Moodle so that we can create updated interactives, facilitate better communication, and provide a more powerful education experience for the thousands of current and future learners we will serve.

Thank you for coming with us on this educational journey.


The Seminars on Science Team

Weekly Home Page for The Solar System Course

Weekly Home Page for The Solar System Course