22 Jul 2016

Forensic Science: Not As Seen On TV

by L. E. Carmichael

Why do TV shows have science consultants when they clearly don't listen to what their consultants tell them?
I have often wondered this. Generally while watching forensics procedurals.
I still haven't recovered from that episode of Bones where Dr. Jack Hodgins, in shocking defiance of sterile protocol, sorts through a fecal sample and then grabs a lamp with his dirty glove. GAH!
The one that really gets me, though, is "zoom and enhance," a ubiquitous trope so blatantly impossible that every seventh grader in every class I've ever visited knows it could never happen. As does anyone who's tapped on a cell phone pic and watched it pixilate.

(I have a friend who does special effects for these shows. He HATES "zoom and enhance," because he's the guy that has to stitch together the distance shot and the completely separate close shot to make it look like that actually works.)
Lighten up, Lindsey, you say - these shows are for entertainment, not education! Thing is though, a lot of viewers, particularly young ones, don't make that distinction. And the inaccuracies in television dramas create misconceptions about how forensic science works in the real world.
Case in point, the CSI Effect. Many lawyers and judges contest that watching TV crime shows has biased jurors' reactions to evidence presented in real trials. Jurors have acquitted people due to a lack of DNA evidence, despite the fact that not all crimes naturally involve the transfer of DNA. Regardless of the weight of other evidence, jurors expect forensic evidence in every trial. Police and CSIs know that, and have dramatically increased the volume of evidence they collect at crime scenes.... which seems like a good thing until you realize that real-life crime labs (unlike the ones on TV) have small staffs, limited budgets, and enormous backlogs of unprocessed evidence.
It is possible that the CSI Effect is not a real thing (scientific studies of the phenomenon are mixed). But if a fictional effect has created a real shift in evidence-gathering behaviour, that creates a real life problem, the ramifications of which are not yet fully known.
I blame Hollywood. But I still watch forensic shows, because they are some of the only shows on TV where scientists get to be stars.
Are you a fan of forensic shows? Which ones are your favourites? Have you given up on shows because they just can't get the science right?
Want me to talk to your seventh graders about forensic fact and fiction? I'm a member of the Nova Scotia Writers in the Schools Program and the Writers' Union of Canada, both of which offer subsidies to help bring writers into the classroom. Contact me for details.
You can also pre-order my new forensic book for grades 3-6, Discover Forensic Science.

8 Jul 2016

Do Kids Know That Word?

Choosing Age-appropriate Vocabulary in Science Communication

by Adrienne Montgomerie

Choosing words for kids' science materials can be tricky. Kids who are into science know a lot of vocabulary that isn’t in the curriculum. On the other hand, there’s no knowing whether any of the terminology taught in school is remembered. Heck, adults don’t remember most of the terms they were tested on in school.

But we have to start somewhere. And the easiest place to start is with the school curriculum.

Word lists such as the Children’s Writers Word Handbook, Dolche, and Modingler examine the number of times a child will be exposed to a given word at a given age. These systems survey literature that kids that age typically read. For my science vocabulary list, I took a much more restricted view, and examined only the elementary and high school curriculum expectations from the various ministries of education across Canada (as it became available and continues to change). The list records in which grade kids are exposed to various scientific terms. Of course, we can’t account for how often kids will see these terms, or for the impact of really keen or even disinterested science teaching, but the curriculum expectations provide a sort of baseline.

Why does this help? Because we can have a reasonable expectation that teens will recognize the term adaptation, because it is addressed in three grades by the time they are 15. And we can know to take extra care to explain the term heat sink because most teachers won’t cover that until Grade 10, when kids are about 14 years old, and they’ll learn about it only that one time. But even though climate is never presented as a key term, we might well expect people of all ages to have a sense of how the term is used, even if they can’t define it. Climate is used when discussing habitats in Grade 2 (ON), adaptations in Grade 3 (ON), and climate change in Grade 10 (ON), and we hear it in the news frequently.

Two other insights come out of this list:
  1. The spread of topics addressed across the country. Geology is a topic examined almost exclusively in British Columbia (in general science courses), for example. That should inform writers to always explain subduction zone and other seismological terms.
  2. The level of understanding the audience might have. To wit, a subject studied at Grade 11 will likely be understood at a more detailed and sophisticated level than a subject that was studied at Grade 3, even if we exclude the factor of how long there has been to forget.
Writers need to do some extrapolation from the lists that I have been compiling. Because I culled the stated vocabulary from the curriculum expectations, there are other, collateral terms, that writers could reasonably assume teachers are using. For example, characteristics must be talked about when discussing rocks in Grade 2 (BC) or classifications in Grade 6 (ON). The term chlorophyll is never listed in the expectations, but teachers might be assumed to talk about it when discussing chloroplasts in Grades 6, 8, and 11 (ON). Where it seemed reasonable, I included these terms and marked their grade level in brackets.

Field testing with your audience is a most useful test, and this vocabulary list will set you off on the right track.

How do you vet the vocabulary in your writing? Leave a comment below, join the discussion on Facebook, or Twitter @scieditor .

Adrienne Montgomerie is a science and education editor who helps publishers and businesses develop training resources. She believes we can make even the most complex ideas and procedures easy for learners to take in, maybe even to master.

1 Jul 2016

On Books - and "Real Books"

Writing for kids can be a monstrously thankless job. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me, “When are you going to write a ‘real’ book?” Grrrr.

Kids’ books are real books. The level of material they contain is often superior to material aimed at adults.  With good reason:  What we read when we’re young will stick with us for a lifetime. And if the ‘facts’ we learn are wrong….

Let’s pause for a moment and think about pearls. Do you, by any chance, think they form when a bit of grit gets into the oyster? So sorry. Not so.
I only learned the true story of the pearl while researching The Big Green Book of the Big Blue Sea (Kids Can Press). I fact-checked a ‘fact’ that I ‘knew’ was true: that oyster tidbit. I thought doing so was a formality; a waste of time even.

Yet when I looked for a good source to cite for the snippet, I couldn’t find one. I found lots of cut-and-paste text saying the same thing (grit, grit, grit). But no reliable data. I spent countless hours digging deeper. When I finally burrowed down to some solid research, I was shocked. Pearls, it turns out, are formed when a parasite, not a bit of grit, gets into the oyster’s gut.  

Because of ‘gems’ (read: booboos) like this, I always take extra care to get the facts in my books right. That’s easier said than done. In my latest science book, Monster Science (Kids Can Press), I planned to describe Gregor Mendel’s famous pea experiment. When I fact-checked the basics, I wound up with questions about the number of pea plants he grew. The figures repeated most often in reference material were 28- or 29,000. But where, exactly, did these figures come from? Could it be verified?
I spent a solid week looking for answers. There were none. It seems the numbers were fabricated and repeated again and again, just like the pearls-are-made-by-grit “fact.”
So I got to work. To compute a more reliable answer, I sourced Mendel’s own data and google-translated it from German. When I added up his own tallies for the pea plants he grew, it was significantly closer to 20,000 than 29,000. But that figure, too, was just a best guess: Mendel's data was incomplete. So no one really knows how many pea plants he grew! 
“10-20,000 plants” went into the manuscript.Unsurprisingly, the copy editor flagged it as an error, because she was comparing it to all the widely published – but wrong – numbers on the web! 
That could become a big problem. A book’s saleability can be hampered if reviewers think the research is sketchy. So my “10-20,000 plants” phrase couldn’t stand either.
So what to do? Long, detailed backs-and-forths transpired as we parsed the data and experimented with language. We finally came up with a phrase that delicately bridged the gap between what we knew was dead-accurate (“who knows?”)  and what sounded right  (29,000).

In the end, we spent over two weeks working on one ‘minor’ phrase. Why? Because we respect our readers.  And that’s why kids’ books are real books. They contain the best possible information available today, presented in clear, easy-to-understand language. Easy enough, that is, for even grown-ups to understand. 

30 Jun 2016


June 30, 2016 -- Author and speaker Shar Levine, a founding member of Sci/Why, has been appointed a Member of the Order of Canada. The appointment, announced today, is for "her contributions to making science easier for children to understand through her hands-on workshops and for her work to involve parents, teachers and librarians in science education."

The Vancouver-based author, known as The Science Lady, said she is still numb with the news. "It's a win for all science writers," In particular, she said, she shares the honour with her long-time writing partner, Leslie Johnstone.

The Order of Canada recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.

24 Jun 2016

A Day in the Life of a Park Ranger

Note: Canadian parks generally have park wardens rather than park rangers, the term used in the United States. Apart from the difference in name, the job is much the same on both sides of the border. If you go to a park this summer, watch for the park rangers or park wardens - and remember the Oregon park rangers described here by author Margriet Ruurs. -CE

If you are interested in science - biology, ecology, being outdoors and leading a life of adventure - you might want to consider a career as a Park Ranger. Park Rangers, or wardens, manage wildlife, the environment, but also people who visit parks and interact with wild animals.

When Julie goes to work, she doesn’t know what will happen that day. Some days she drives her truck through the park to make sure everything is okay. Or she glides across the lake in her kayak to check the water depth and quality. Other days she has to cut down a tree that poses a danger to campers, writes a ticket to someone who broke the law or sits behind her desk to do paperwork.

Julie knows one thing for certain: no day on the job is ever the same!

Julie has been a Park Ranger for almost 20 years. When she was a kid, Julie loved to go camping with her family. It was back then that she decided that she would like nothing better than to work in the outdoors. “If you like camping and hiking and boating, there’s no better job!” she says.

Park Rangers learn about law enforcement and help to ensure that park visitors respect and learn about their natural environment. “Park Rangers are a kind of policeman in the outdoors,” Julie says. She helps to protect wildlife, such as bears or bobcats, that may live in the park and makes sure that both people and wildlife are safe.

Not everything about the job is exciting: Park Rangers may also have to paint picnic shelters and tables, clean outhouses and fire pits. Some Park Rangers work in Historic Parks that preserve an important historic place for the future.

Doug is one of Julie’s colleagues. He works at a historic heritage park. Here he shows a family how an old grist mill uses the power of water to grind flour in the olden days. Interpretation of nature or history, and teaching people how to interact with their environment can be a big part of the job of a Park Ranger.

At night, Julie often patrols campgrounds. She walks around with another ranger. They chat with the campers while making sure that they treat their environment with respect. Often Julie works long days and, by the time she crawls into bed, she is tired but happy to be a Park Ranger.

What she likes best about her job is that no two days are ever the same. “I love the variety!” Julie smiles. Who knows what tomorrow may bring!

Become a Junior Park Ranger

In American parks, if you are interested in protecting wildlife and learning more about natural areas, you can become a Junior Ranger. Many State and National Parks have Junior Ranger Programs. You can participate in special programs such as interpretive hikes and campfire programs. Often, you will get a special certificate or badge.

Most parks have special programs in the summer:

  • In Grand Canyon National Park, you get a special handbook for Junior Rangers that will help you to learn about the environment. 
  • Louisiana State Parks will give you a special punch card to get punched each time you visit a State Park’s event. After three punches, you will receive a Junior Ranger Handbook full of activities. Once you complete the activities, you receive a special Junior Ranger patch, a certificate and a personalized letter from the Director of State Parks in Louisiana.
  • In Yellowstone National Park, you can even go on a Junior Ranger snowshoe hike in the winter.

Be a Web Ranger or an Xplorer

If you can’t visit a Park in person, the U.S. National Park Service offers a “Web Rangers” site where you can learn about dinosaurs' diets, turtles in Florida and cave drawings made by Native Americans hundreds of years ago.

In Canada you can sign up for the Xplorers program before visiting a National Park.

All photos by Margriet Ruurs.

17 Jun 2016

The Joys of Researching Kids’ Science Books — Plus a Contest!

by Jan Thornhill

I’m in the midst of doing research for a new kids’ book ­— one of my favorite parts of the creation process. Not only do I get to fully immerse myself in my subject, but I also get to stumble across fabulous little off-topic tidbits that make my day. When I’m full hog into the process, these tidbits come to me one after another, making me ooh and ah with the thrill of discovery. What I live for — and the reason I tell kids that a day without learning something new is a day wasted.

I just got 2 advance copies of The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk!
Take yesterday, for instance, when I found a slew of fun things that were tangential to my topic. I’m going to list them so you can see what I mean. I’m also going to offer a prize of a signed book (sorry, not the Auk book — none to give away yet) to the first reader who can guess what I’m writing is about (unless I’ve already told you). Other than the “clues” that follow, your only hint is that it will be companion volume to The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk, which is coming out from Groundwood this October.

Staddle Stones

staddle stones
Staddle stones protect storage buildings from vermin. (Wikipedia)
“Staddle stones” were used in Great Britain to raise granaries and other small storage buildings above the ground to keep out vermin. Their widespread use blossomed with the introduction of a worldwide pest. (They look like mushrooms!)


nineteenth century manure crisis
In the late 1800s, horses dropped ridiculous amounts
of manure on the streets every day.
“Crossmen” were boys who were paid to remove manure from streets before automobiles replaced horses in cities. More specifically, they cleaned crossing paths so that women’s long skirts would not drag in piles of “horse apples.” (Google "manure crisis" for some entertaining reading!)

Cotton Domestication

ikat weaving
Ikat weaving (Wikipedia)
Cotton was independently domesticated in both the east and the west. Along with its domestication, the same tools for working it were independently invented: combs, spindles and simple looms. What I like best is that ikat weaving, (an extremely complicated process of dying bundles of yarn multiple hues or shades of colour and then lining them up while weaving to create intricate patterns in the final fabric), was also independently invented in Asia, Africa and central America. 

Word of the Day!

Inartificial: not characterized by art or skill (archaic)

Quote of the Day!

Mark Twain having a youthful bad hair day. (Wikipedia)

A quote attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

The "Father of Traffic Safety"

William Phelps Eno invented traffic signs
Traffic jams were common in cities long before cars came along.
At the beginning of the twentieth century William Phelps Eno — the "father of traffic safety" — came up with the stop sign, pedestrian crosswalk, traffic circle, one-way street, pedestrian traffic island, yield sign, and taxi stand. This was his adult response to having been stuck in a traffic jam many years before when he was a child, a traffic jam of about a dozen horse-drawn vehicles. He remembered thinking at the time that “all that was needed was a little order to keep the traffic moving.”

Protected Species in Elizabethan Cities

scavenger raven
The common raven is a scavenger. (Wikipedia)
Ravens and kites were protected species in Elizabethan cities. Both are scavengers of dead animals. I think it must have smelled more back then than we imagined!

10 Jun 2016

World Oceans Day

There are plenty of ways to celebrate science on World Oceans Day! Today before going to the beach, I went to Twitter and looked at some interesting projects
OceanNetworksCanada ‏@Ocean_Networks 
-that's a fascinating page on Twitter, with plenty of photos and links to interesting things happening in ocean science. Today they posted:
 "The audience oohs at a California during 's . Awesome!
Ocean Networks had this wonderful image of a sea cucumber!
 I also looked at the page for
"Connecting people to the ocean in an entertaining, engaging & educational way to build ocean awareness & the next generation of ocean stewards.

Fish Eye and Ocean Network used the hashtag #livedive, which leads to a page discussing live broadcasts during dives in the ocean. Fascinating!

Twitter is no substitute for walking along the seashore, or learning to scuba dive. But it's a great way to bring the outdoors and ocean into my home for an hour, and help me decide what to look for in the library and at the seashore.