Category Archives: Science

Creating and Maintaining a Monarch Sanctuary in Your Yard

Monarch Header.2

The Amazing Life of the Monarch Butterfly

Monarchs, like all butterflies, go through a 4 stage life cycle.  They begin as eggs, hatch into caterpillars, enfold themselves into a chrysalis as a pupa, and while inside metamorphose (which means to change shape) into a striking orange and black butterfly.  One thing that makes Monarchs unique is that their caterpillars will only eat milkweed plants, and will starve without them.  Eating milkweed provides them protection from many predators, as the caterpillars and butterflies concentrate toxic chemicals (cardenolide alkaloids) found in the milky sap.

Another thing that makes Monarch Butterflies unique in the insect world is their annual migration. Monarchs that breed in eastern North America migrate up to 2,500 miles to wintering sites in Mexico. Monarchs that breed in western North America migrate to the California coast for the winter. That is a long way for a creature that has a wing span of 4 inches and weighs 500 grams (equivalent to a paper clip)!

(Click on any of the images to get a closer look)

Caption

The lifespan of a monarch butterfly is short, though the generation that overwinters in Mexico and California lives up to 8 months.

In the fall Eastern Monarchs fly south to overwinter in special forests in Mexico.  The Western population overwinters along the California coast.  In the springs and summer Monarchs either fly north from Mexico to the U.S.and Canada, or move inland and north from the California coast.

In the fall Eastern Monarchs fly south to overwinter in special forests in Mexico. The Western population overwinters along the California coast. In the spring and summer Monarchs either fly north from Mexico to the U.S. and Canada, or move inland and north from the California coast.

Numbers of Monarchs are Declining

Unfortunately, the things that make Monarchs unique are also posing challenges to their survival.  Their overwintering sites in Mexico and in California are threatened by development and habitat loss.  Another threat to the species is the huge decline in milkweed plants found in the United States and Canada, due to habitat loss from human development and the expansion of agriculture (particularly crops that have been genetically modified to resist the pesticide Roundup).  Milkweed, which used to grow alongside crops like corn and soybeans, has almost disappeared from Midwestern fields.  This loss of habitat for their host plant, along with periods of bad weather in the forests where the butterflies hibernate in Mexico, have severely reduced the numbers of Monarchs.

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Help Monarchs by Planting Milkweed

The news is not all bad though.  Recognizing that the Monarchs’ dependance on milkweed that is disappearing is endangering this iconic butterfly, people all over North America are doing what they can to help.  From pushing for protections for their overwintering grounds, to the very simple step of planting lots and lots and lots of milkweed.

You too can participate in helping Monarchs, by setting up a sanctuary in your yard, garden, school, or business.  Your reward will be the countless butterflies that flutter through your yard, feeding on your plants and also laying eggs.  You will get to watch monarchs first hand as they progress through the stages of their lives.  Check out these amazing moments I have witnessed in my yard over the past 2 years…

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Monarch butterflies laying eggs.  They bend their abdomens up and lay eggs on the underside of leaves or on flower buds.  The eggs are the small white dots in the lower panels.  In the panel on the left you can see some tiny hatchlings.

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Big fat Monarch Caterpillars.  These guys can chew through a leaf so fast!

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Monarchs leave the milkweed plant when the pupate.  Sometimes you find their chrysalises out in the open, but often they are hidden away.  The chrysalis starts out bright green, and then becomes transparent.  The unique orange and black pattern can be seen through the thinning walls of the chrysalis when the butterfly is close to emerging.

Monarch butterflies love to feed on milkweed nectar, but they also enjoy feeding from other flowers.  Be sure to have lots of different food sources for them in your sanctuary.

Monarch butterflies love to feed on milkweed nectar, but they also enjoy feeding from other flowers.  Be sure to have lots of different food sources for them in your sanctuary.

 Growing Milkweed in Your Yard or Garden

You will probably find that, just like eating potato chips, you can’t have just one milkweed plant.  I started with one, and now have several scattered around.  My main patch is a collection of 5 large pots, and I have three or four other areas in my yard.  I have mainly tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), though I recently started a batch of narrow leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), a California native.  The milkweed that you mainly find in nurseries in CA is tropical (Monarchs really like laying their eggs on this one), but you can purchase seeds of native milkweeds over the internet or you can find plants at native plant nurseries.

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My main patch of tropical milkweed on the right; tropical (in the pots) and narrow leaf milkweed (in the seed starter) plants I am growing from seeds.

There are many species of milkweed that are native to California.

Some of the many species of milkweed that are native to California, plus one random non-native that I put in because it is so pretty!

Once you have healthy milkweed plants growing, getting more is easy!  They produce many seed pods, and you can harvest the seeds before they blow away and plant them.  I use 72 well seed starters that you can get for under 10 dollars.  I also just shove seeds into the dirt in random pots around my yard and wait for little milkweeds to grow.  One thing to be careful of is that rodents love to eat milkweed seedlings, so when I use seed starters I make sure to put the cover on them and keep them up high when the seedlings are young and tender.  If you generate too many seeds to plant yourself, you could give them away to friends, or send them into seed collecting programs that you can find online.

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Milkweed seeds blowing away from a seedpod.  On the left are seeds that have not fluffed out their floss yet.  They are really beautiful!

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Sam planting milkweed seeds in a seed starter.  He planted 100 seeds, and 40% of them germinated.  Once the plants were bigger he gave them away to his Boy Scout troop.

Maintaining Healthy Plants

One thing that you cannot do is get attached to a leafy, lush milkweed plant.  Because if you get lucky and have a bumper crop of caterpillars, they will eat it down to nothing.  It is a good idea to have a backup plan, in case all of the leaves are eaten. I have twice carried containers of caterpillars over to a local garden when my caterpillars ate every single leaf off of my original plant.  This is also how my collection grew, as I ran out and bought several more plants as insurance against caterpillar famine!  There are a few pests you want to keep an eye out for.  You will find yellow aphids on your plants.  I squish them with my fingers, sometimes also washing them off using a soapy solution (mix a few squirts of dish washing liquid with water and keep in a spray bottle) or the mist setting on my hose nozzle.  If you have a lot of ants around the base of your plant, carefully spray a little ant killer.  Ants milk the aphids like cows, so you don’t want too many ants on your plants.  Or in your pants.  You also want to pluck off and kill any black and red milkweed beetles you find, as they suck the life out of the seeds in the seed pods.  Finally, if you see whitish, sick-looking leaves, remove them, and also scrape off any scale insects you see, which look like little brown limpets clinging to the stems and branches of the plant.  Some people suggest that you cut back your tropical milkweed in the fall if you live in a climate like California where it thrives and blooms year round, to reduce plant diseases and to encourage monarchs to continue their migrations.  I don’t really do this.  I hope the milkweed militants don’t find me…

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My original milkweed that was chewed down the sticks.  It recovered in a few weeks, and was bushy and healthy again in no time.

These creepy little yellow aphids will suck your milkweed dry if you don't remove them.

These creepy little yellow aphids will suck your milkweed dry if you don’t remove them.

These red and black beetles suck the juices out of the seeds in the seed pods, which ruins the seeds.

These red and black milkweed beetles suck the juices out of the seeds in the seed pods, which ruins the seeds.  Have no mercy, even on the little ones.

Monarch Predators

Even though they are poisonous to many creatures, some are able to eat Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies.  Mice, assassin beetles, and some species of wasps, spiders, and birds are known predators of Monarchs.  I have seen caterpillars fleeing from a milkweed plant, so if this happens check on the stems and the underside of leaves for any other insects.  I have very low tolerance for any insects on my milkweed plants, and the only ones I let live are lady bugs.

Wrap Up

For more information, please visit these websites (from which I obtained many of the facts in this post).

The Monarch Program

Monarch Watch

Monarch Butterfly – Journey North

USDA Forest Service – The Monarch Butterfly in North America

I hope that I have convinced you to take the plunge into milkweed and Monarch madness.  You will not regret it, as you welcome these wonderful creatures into your life.  If you still aren’t convinced, check out these amazing videos I took recently in my yard.

A Monarch Butterfly laying eggs on my milkweed plant

A Monarch Caterpillar eating a milkweed leaf

A Monarch Butterfly feeding on milkweed flower nectar

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Two Days at the California State Science Fair

Science Fair.header

Sam and I headed up to Los Angeles earlier this week to attend the California State Science Fair.  It was held at the California Science Center, in Exposition Park (where the 1984 Olympics were held).  His project was on how seedlings grew in burned vs. unburned areas in Mission Trails Regional Park.  You can check out his science blog for more details, though it is not that up to date (Science Blog!).  This is one of our projects to work on now that the state fair is done!

It was a fun few days.  We were both really impressed with the other projects we saw, and also at how well run the fair was.  Sam is going to continue his project, so hopefully he will get back there next year.  Click on photos to get a better look.

Almost 1,000 students, each with a parent or two.  Plus volunteers and judges.  It was a crowd!

Attending the state fair were almost 1,000 students, each with a parent or two. Plus volunteers and judges. It was a crowd!  On the right is Sam next to his giant poster.

Sam and I were both SO EXCITED when we learned his project would be displayed in the room with the space shuttle Endeavor.  The posters were displayed in rings around the space craft.  We were blown away.

Sam and I were both SO EXCITED when we learned his project would be displayed in the room with the space shuttle Endeavor. The posters were displayed in rings around the space craft. We were blown away.  During the public viewing of the projects Sam hung out by his poster while I sat in my travel chair underneath the Endeavor and read a book.  Coolest place ever to read.  EVER!

More shuttle pics.  The tiles on the bottom had numbers.  The engines were huge.  The shuttle as a whole is beautifully streamlined.  It reminded me more of a sea creature than a bird, like a giant ray.

More shuttle pics. The tiles on the bottom had numbers. The engines were huge. The shuttle as a whole is beautifully streamlined. It reminded me more of a sea creature like a giant ray than a bird.

Sam spent every minute of his break time racing around the science center checking out the exhibits.  Many of them involved motion.  Making waves, lifting a truck on a giant lever, you get the idea.  I think his choices might have had something to do with sitting next to his poster talking for hours.  Nerd alert: He was like a coiled spring, bursting with potential energy just DYING to be converted to kinetic energy.

Sam spent every minute of his break time racing around the science center checking out the exhibits. Many of them involved motion. Making waves, lifting a truck on a giant lever, you get the idea. I think his choices might have had something to do with sitting next to his poster talking for hours. He was like a coiled spring, bursting with potential energy just DYING to be converted to kinetic energy.

Super super cool space exhibits, I mean besides the epically cool Endeavor exhibit.  Gemini and Apollo capsules, a Mars lander, satellites (including Sputnik!) and space probes.

The science center had super super cool space exhibits, in addition to the epically cool Endeavor exhibit. Gemini and Apollo capsules, a Mars lander, satellites (including Sputnik!) and space probes.

The kelp aquarium was a soothing spot to wander about.  Sam liked the small window.  I loved the school fish, they were mezmerizing as they flashed through the water.

The kelp aquarium was a soothing spot to hang out in. Sam liked the small window. I loved the schooling fish; they were mesmerizing as they flashed through the water.

The awards ceremony was in a lovely indoor/outdoor pavilion.  Sam got an honorable mention, which was terrific for his first state science fair.  Maybe next year he will get to go up on stage and get a medal, just like Han and Luke.

The awards ceremony was in a lovely indoor/outdoor pavilion. Sam got an honorable mention, which was terrific for his first State Science Fair. Maybe next year he will get to go up on stage and get a medal, just like Han and Luke.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include Sam’s video of the desert flash flood exhibit.  The flood went through the exhibit every 10 minutes.  We went back to see it 3 times.  It fascinated him.  I got to spend a lot of time watching the desert tortoise sleep, or slowly bang around its enclosure, as I waited for the flood in the other exhibit.  Soothing, but not as soothing as the kelp.  The nice thing about this video, is that you don’t have to wait around, you can just watch it…again and again and again…

Flash Flood Video

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A Celebration of Our Sun – San Diego Solar Eclipse – 2014

Eclipse.header

Today in San Diego we were treated to a partial solar eclipse.  However, since at its maximum the moon only covered 45 % of the sun’s surface, most people were unaware that an eclipse was happening.  How amazing is that, that 45% of the sun’s rays onto the Earth are blocked by the moon, and we don’t notice?  Our sun is AWESOME!

Here is a link to an amazing video of the eclipse taken by the Griffith Observatory in LA, it condenses 2 1/2 hours of the eclipse into one minute.

http://new.livestream.com/GriffithObservatoryTV/solareclipseOctober2014/videos/65868914

This is my attempt to document the eclipse.  I put my eclipse viewing glasses over the lens of my point and shoot camera and snapped a picture.

Mo's eclipse pic

You can’t see them on my picture, but on the Griffith Observatory picture you can see a big patch of sun spots.  When I looked with the naked eye I could see what looked like one big sun spot, not the collection of 3 or 4 you can see on their photo.

Here is the view of the eclipse at maximum, again from the observatory.

Max eclipse

There are other ways to view an eclipse.  You can make a pinhole camera by poking a hole in a board and holding it up to the sun, and then you can look at the image it projects onto a surface.  Or you can get a super fancy version of that, like they had today at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego.

Pinhole camera.eclipse

You can get the same effect by looking at sunlight filtered through tree leaves onto a sidewalk.  I took this picture this afternoon during the eclipse.  See all the little crescents?

Sidewalk eclipse

Or, as my son Sam showed me after I picked him up from school, you can create the same effect by interlacing your fingers.

Sam waffle fingers

This morning, before the eclipse occurred, I noticed the morning sun shining through the petals of a newly blossomed cactus orchid in my yard.  It is a good thing to be in the celestial Goldilocks zone!  Life on Earth is so beautiful.

Pink cactus orchid flower

And finally, a picture Sam took recently.  He pointed the camera directly at the sun.  If you listen carefully, you can hear the image sensors in the camera screaming.

Sam's photo of the sun

There you have it.  A celebration of our sun, on occasion of a solar eclipse, this day, October 23, in the year 2014.  Enjoy our sun in its current form.  After another 5 billion years, it will burn up the remainder of its hydrogen, swell up into a red giant, consuming Mercury and Venus in the process, and toast away any remnants of life on Earth.  But that’s a story for another day…

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Monarch Butterfly A – B – C

1. Monarch header

We live on a canyon in Southern California, which is incredibly awesome, except for the few weeks of the year when the dry Santa Ana winds blow and everyone worries (not unreasonably) about wildfire.  I love the up close view I get of nature.  Hawks, quail, crows, owls, and many other types of birds, rattlesnakes (!), lizards, racoons, opossums, coyotes, bobcats (we found entrails deposited by our front door just after moving in), rats (my cat killed one and tried to bring it in the house) and all kinds of insects.  Little did I know what I was missing though, until I got a milkweed plant a few years ago.

Monarch caterpillars are like koalas and pandas, in that they eat only one thing.  And for monarchs that one thing is milkweed.  There used to be fields and fields of milkweed, but because of herbicide use and habitat loss, the number of plants across the nation has dwindled.  If you love monarchs and want a show that lasts for months (at least in Southern CA), put some milkweed plants in your yard or in a big pot on your patio!

I was amazed at how many butterflies visited.  They came in and out over hours as I worked in my yard.  Hundreds of small, white eggs were laid, and hatched into loads of caterpillars.  At one point I had so many caterpillars that they ate my plant down to sticks and stems (not one leaf was left), and I had to load caterpillars up in a box and drive around Tierrasanta looking for other milkweed plants to transfer them onto so they could have food to eat.

Needless to say, all this action was a photographer’s bonanza.  I have nearly 700 photos I have taken over the past 2 years.  I know that this is excessive, possibly crossing the line into obsessive.  There, I admitted my problem, which is one of those 12 steps.  Because of all those photos, I have been putting off writing this because how was I supposed to winnow them down to fit in a blog post?  Ah Ha!! (I thought to myself), the ALPHABET.  Only 26 letters!!  That’s how!

Well, sort of.  I put in two or three photos for some letters, because I couldn’t control myself.  So my alphabet has 52 entries instead of 26.  I know it is a lot (actually 2 times what I planned), but I guarantee that each and every one of them is super cool.  Check them out, be amazed at the beauty of nature, the cycle of life, and one woman’s inability to stop taking photos, no matter how many pics of these little fellas she already had.  And be grateful that she did.

(Click on the images for a better view)

Adult

A - Adult

Babies

B - Babies

Blur

B - Blur

Chrysalis

C - Chrysalis

Count

C - Count

Curled Up

C- Curled up

Dracula

D- Dracula

Eat

E - Eat

Eggs

E - Eggs

Elevated

E - Elevated

Feet

F - Feet

Finger Dancer

F - Finger dancer

Going In

G - Going in

Goin’ My Way?

G - Going my way?

Green Leaf

G - Green

Generations

G- Generations

Hanging Out

H - Hanging out

Holey Leaf Batman!

H - Holey leaf Batman!

Hatchlings

H -Hatching

Incandescent

I - Incandescent

Just J

J - Just J

Kaleidoscope

K - Kaleidoscope

Karaoke

K - Karaoke

Ladder

L - Ladder

Laying An Egg

L - Laying eggs

Most Interesting Caterpillar in the World

M - Most interesting caterpillar in the world

Num Num Num…

N - Num num num

Operation Relocation

O- Operation Relocation

Pair o’ Pillars

P - Pair

Planting Milkweed Seeds

P - Planting

Platform

P - Platform

Praying

P- Prayer

Que Pasa?

Q - Que pasa?

Ring Finger

R - Ring finger

Seeds

S - Seed

Sharp Little Pointy Feet

S - Sharp and pointy

Stripey

S - Stripey

Swinging on a Leaf

S- Sawing off the wrong end

Transferring to a New Location

T - Transfer

Teeny Tiny

T- Teeny tiny

Triple Play

T- Triple play

Ugly Duckling

U - Ugly duckling

Upside Down

U - Upside down

Underneath

U -Under

Very Long

V - Very long

Wings

W - Wings

Whole Mess a Monarchs

W- Whole mess a monarchs

X-Wing Fighter

X -X wing fighter

Yellow is Yummy

Y- Yellow is yummy

Zoom In

Z - Zoom in

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Arachnaphilia – Spiders in My Yard!

Unfortunately, this awesome Halloween decoration was stolen from our yard a few years ago.  We miss him/it.

Unfortunately, this awesome Halloween decoration was stolen from our yard a few years ago. We miss him/it.

I’m getting into the swing up our upcoming national scarefest on October 31st.  This post is for you if you like spiders, love spiders, get creeped out by spiders, or hate spiders.  If you are a spider killer, move on to another blog.  We have a no kill policy in our house, we relocate to the yard.  Which is why it is full of … SPIDERS!  I will admit that I do kill Black Widows and remove their egg sacs.  The whole poisonous thing is too much even for me, a spider lover.   But they are still really cool.  For an excellent short bio of Black Widows check out (http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/black-widow-spider/).  And yes, they are called widows because the females do sometimes kill and eat their mates.  Remind your husband of this the next time he doesn’t want to get up from the recliner to take out the trash.

Now for some photos of spiders from the yard.  EEEEEKKKKKK!

Took this recently, after I spotted this garden spider spinning a web right over our table.  Watched it make its web for about 15 minutes.  They move really fast!

Took this recently, after I spotted this garden spider spinning a web right over our table. Watched it make its web for about 15 minutes. They move really fast!

Action shots of the spider spinning.

One of our backyard favorites.  Their webs stay in the same place for weeks.

One of our backyard favorites. Their webs stay in the same place for weeks.

We found this next spider a few years ago.  It made a web on top of one of our bushes.  The web was like a giant funnel, and the spider waited for anything to land on the web and then would race out to eat it.  Sam and I spent a few minutes dropping things on to the web, and then we would shriek and jump back when the spider zipped out of the web.  It moved like lighting.  Eventually it got tired of us and sat in the end of its funnel sulking.  I don’t really blame it.

Funnel spider.1

Funnel.spider.2

Funnel.spider.3

The smallest spider I've ever seen.  I don't even know how we noticed it.  It spun around the blade of grass like some Cirque du Soleil performer, and then dropped off into the lawn, never to be seen again.

The smallest spider I’ve ever seen. I don’t even know how we noticed it. It spun around the blade of grass like some Cirque du Soleil performer, and then dropped off into the lawn, never to be seen again.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

We are a crafty family, so I couldn’t resist adding in a really fun Halloween decoration we made last year.  Take a white pumpkin and draw web lines on with a black sharpie.  Hot clue a big fat spider and a fly to the web.  It you want to get really gruesome, hot glue little people instead of a fly…totally creepy.  Both you and your decoration.

Sam.pumpkin.craft

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Diving Into the Wide World of MOOCs

MOOC.header

My kids (age 11 and 13) and I have recently begun to explore the world of massive open online courses (MOOCs).  We now use the word as a verb.  As in…

“Emma, it’s time to MOOC”.

We also like to sing to prepare ourselves to MOOC.  As in…

“We’ve got to MOOC it MOOC it, we’ve got to MOOC it MOOC it”.

If you are a fan of the Madagascar movies, you know what I am talking about.

I recently created accounts on four different MOOC sites; Coursera, edX, Udacity, and Open2Study.  What brought this about was a missed opportunity when I was in college at Wellesley.  I was a science major (Biology) and I had to take math, chemistry, and physics courses to fulfill requirements, which left me little space for humanities classes in my schedule.  Wellesley, at the time (late 1980’s), had an amazing Art History introductory course, which was supposed to be very difficult and time consuming (the final was legendary), but a great experience.  I never took it, to my eternal regret.  So on an impulse one day I checked to see whether Wellesley had an Art History MOOC.

They did not.  I guess this is still reserved for paying customers.  But it got me looking around at the world of MOOCS, signing up for various sites, and enrolling in courses.  I was not looking for what I wanted to take per se, but what might be of interest to my 13 year old daughter, who has high functioning autism.  Emma is 13, as smart as they come, with a high interest in science (cosmology and biology have been favorites for years).  She also can be difficult to shepherd through life, and the expectations of life both at home and at school sometimes challenge her.  I lit upon the idea of MOOCs as a way to help develop her executive function skills (time management, organization, attention) while working on material in areas of her (sometimes obsessive) interests.

That was the original idea, but it has gone so much beyond that.  I may need an intervention soon.  Over the summer Emma and I finished two MOOCs (Introduction to the Universe and Epigenetic Control of Gene Expression).  This fall she and I will do From the Big Bang to Dark Energy (she loves cosmology!) and Human Evolution (offered by Wellesley, yeah!), Sam and I will do Preparation for Introductory Biology and Beginning Game Programming, and I will be doing Networked Life (my friend Mike is teaching this one) and A History of the World from 1300.

It sounds like a lot (and probably is a lot), but the beauty of MOOCs is that they are FREE, and you can put in as much effort as suits you.  Sam’s Biology MOOC is a great example.  They have a basics track (you watch videos and take quizzes) and a scholar’s track (you do other assignments as well).  I am doing the basics track with him, and it is perfect.  It also helps that the material is quite familiar to me, so I pause the videos to make sure he is following or to explain the material further, or I review the material with him afterwards.  But as an 11 year old he is getting a great introduction to basic concepts in biology and biochemistry such as DNA replication, the structure of the plasma membrane, and protein synthesis.  He may not remember most of the details, but when he hits the material in high school it won’t be the first time he has seen it.

Sam reviewing cellular structures.

Sam reviewing cellular structures.

As I said, it helps to be familiar with the material if you are using these online classes to supplement your child’s education.  Sam’s upcoming MOOC,  Beginning Game Programming, should be interesting, as I know nothing about computer programming.  Trying to take it may be full of fail, but again, it doesn’t matter.  We will just chalk it up to an error in judgement, and move on.  I sometimes have the opposite problem with Emma, as she got very bored with the introductory lecture for her cosmology MOOC, and started lecturing back at the screen.  Good practice though, since it was a chance to work on what is okay to do when you are bored in class.  Shouting back at the professor…not so good.

The MOOCS have been great for both kids in driving home the lesson that you need to keep up with your work, as the weekly quizzes close out after the due date, and you need to have watched all the weekly videos (usually 4 to 6) before then to pass the quiz.  It is a shift from the type of responsibility expected from students in middle and high school, where the progression of learning is mapped out by their teacher.  This puts the onus on the student to fit their work into their schedule and to budget their time, which is more reflective of what they will experience in college.

But the great thing about MOOCs is that you can access college level curriculum without the pressure of college.  If you lose interest or run out of time and can’t continue with a MOOC, you just quietly slink out of the back of the virtual classroom and no one is the wiser.  But if you are really gung ho, you can pay a fee (usually around $40) and get an official certificate of completion for the course.  I’m not sure how this will translate into real world credit; this is one of the aspects of MOOCs that is still evolving.

One final general observation about MOOCs is that the level of the material covered and the difficulty of the quizzes and assignments varies a lot, depending on the target audience.  Some are taught at a very high level with a lot of detail (the Epigenetics MOOC we took), versus others that are more about providing a general overview of a topic (Introduction to the Universe was more along this line).  Both types of courses have their purpose, and it would be good to understand which kind of MOOC you are signing up for, particularly if you are planning to take it along with a child.

There is a MOOC on just about anything.  Offered by colleges and universities all over the world.  We got to listen to Dr. Marnie Blewitt’s awesome Australian accent as she lectured to us about DNA methylation and nuclear compartmentalization.  My class on networks is being offered by the University of Pennsylvania.  Don’t be intimidated, just get online and sign up.  The learning is easy!

The completion certificate Emma and I earned for Astronomy, our first MOOC.

The completion certificate Emma and I earned for Astronomy, our first MOOC.

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Pet Trilobites

Super awesome decorated trilobites I created from fossils.

Chrome-plated, bug-eyed trilobites I created from fossils.  C – U – T – E !!!

Does anyone recall the pet rock craze from the 1970’s?  Here’s a photo I found that explains the phenomenon, in case you missed it.

Ah, the '70's.  Neon-haired trolls, Gremlins, and pet rocks.

Ah, the ’70’s. Neon-haired troll dolls, Gremlins, and pet rocks.

Recently my lovely son, Sam, spent a week at the Mataguay Boy Scout Ranch, which is in the Cuyamaca Mountains near Julian, CA.  On our way out of town after picking him and his grimy friends up (they didn’t wash, brush their teeth, or change their underwear for a week), we stopped at Dudley’s Famous Bakery and Gift Shop.  Julian is an old mining town, and the gift shop there was a big draw because the boys are rock hounds.  At the gift shop I found the trilobites, and bought them with the idea of jazzing them up some.

Gratuitous photo of my favorite Boy Scout.

Gratuitous photo of my favorite Boy Scout.

I brought the trilobites home and it took me several tries to work out what I wanted to do.  I used various paints, but nothing really was working.  Finally I just blasted them all with chrome spray paint.  Perfect!  I was seriously considering, for about a half an hour, filling in their eyes with tiny seed beads so they would look like jeweled compound eyes, but then sanity returned.  I dug out my bucket of glass beads, and glued them on over the eyes, to give my pet trilobites that super cute, doe-eyed, anime-style adorableness.  Below are more pictures of the trilobites with my favorite cat, Julius.

Julius and the triplets.

Julius and the triplets.

Hello little buddy.  If you were alive today I would totally eat you.

Hello little buddy. If you were alive today I would totally eat you.

Since I had taken out my beads in a moment of madness (see compound eye idea above), I decided to make a few bead bugs while I was at it (see my post The Cheeseburger Head Spider and Other Rare Arthropods).  I made a little centipedey sort of thing.  It reminds me of Flashdance a bit, since it looks like it is wearing leg warmers.

Julius+bug

Now for some sciencey stuff.  Trilobites were marine arthropods that lived between 500 and 250 million years ago.  Most trilobites died out during the Devonian, the final orders became extinct in the mass extinction at the end of the Permian.  This extinction event, which occurred at the Permian-Triassic boundary (250 mya), was the most severe in Earth’s history, with 96% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates being lost.  Trilobites weren’t the only species to be wiped out, though they may have been the cutest.

Emma, at the Permian extinction exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Washington D.C. several years ago.  She loved this, we had to go back at least 4 times over a couple of days.

Emma, at the Permian extinction exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Washington D.C. several years ago. She loved this, we had to go back at least 4 times over a couple of days.  Notice the naked, upside down Barbie clutched in her hand.  Barbie was not a big extinct marine invertebrate fan, she much preferred the Gem and Minerals hall.  The Hope Diamond!  I hope Ken gives one to me someday…

Trilobite facts and pictures.  Trilobites have three lobes on their bodies, which is how they get their name.

Trilobite pictures. Trilobites have three lobes on their bodies, which is where they get their name.

Emma and Sam checking out extinct marine invertebrates in the NHM in D.C.  Look at the giant trilobite on the upper left!

Emma and Sam checking out extinct marine invertebrates in the NHM in D.C. Look at the giant trilobite on the upper left!

One last trilobite for the road.  Pic I took at NHM.  Have I mentioned how cool I think trilobites are?

One last trilobite for the road. Pic I took at the NHM. Have I mentioned how cool I think trilobites are?

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