An open letter from our founder

Dear teachers, school and camp directors, and parents,

On behalf of all our High Touch High Tech scientists across the nation, and around the world, I would like to thank you all for boldly pursuing our science experiences for your students and children.

This has been a very challenging year for us all. Our passionate scientists will continue to inspire our children to become the next generation of scientists that will develop the lifesaving vaccines and medications that have made the end of this pandemic tangible.

The pandemic certainly changed how we engage with your students, driven by our desire to stimulate imagination and curiosity, we took our unique and inspiring programs and pivoted to deliver them as science kits to the students. Our scientist would then lead the science experience adventure by Zoom. While our fun scientists enjoyed the Zoom delivery of our programs, we are all anxious to work with students in person, and watch their faces light up with discovery. While this pivot is working well, we are all looking forward to bringing our hands-on science experiences back into the classroom.

As I have long said, our High Touch High Tech programs can be delivered anywhere learners are and can engage in exciting ways to learn. Because of this we can stimulate young minds, activate new curiosity, and nurture budding imaginations. This has been our approach for the last 29 years. We all have seen that following the science is bringing us out of this pandemic, and sparking curiosity among your students and future scientists assures us the world will continue to become a better place.

Scientifically yours,

Daniel “Dinosaur Dan” Shaw

Founder, High Touch High Tech

The scientist is motivated primarily by curiosity and a desire for truth.

Live Long & Prosper

Join High Touch High Tech in celebrating,
Live Long and Prosper Day
March 26th

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you were ever a fan of Start Trek, the phrase, “Live Long and
Prosper” is a familiar one. Often spoken by Starship Enterprise’s resident Vulcan
and scientist, driven strictly by logic, Mr. Spock. As we celebrate this
special day and meaningful phrase, we take a look at the pop culture icon that
is Mr. Spock, but also the history behind the sentiment and the long-lasting
impact of these simple words. 

The greeting, “Live Long and Prosper” is an abbreviated version of
a traditional Jewish religious blessing. It is translated from the Vulcan
language phrase, ‘dif-tor heh smusma‘, which was so uttered in Star
Trek: The Motion Picture
. The phrase echoes the Hebrew ‘Shalom aleichem’
and the Arabic ‘Salaam alaykum’, which roughly translate as ‘peace be upon
you’.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Leonard Nimoy’s hand demonstrating the Vulcan Salute

In the
Star Trek television series, the phrase was the spoken greeting/blessing that
accompanied the hand gesture called the Vulcan Salute.

In his 1975 autobiography, I am not Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who was Jewish, wrote that he based the Vulcan Salute on the Priestly blessing performed by Jewish Kohanim with both hands, thumb to thumb in this same position, representing the Hebrew letter Shin (ש), which has three upward strokes similar to the position of the thumb and fingers in the gesture. The letter Shin here stands for El Shaddai, meaning “Almighty God”, as well as for Shalom. Nimoy wrote that when he was a child, his grandfather took him to an Orthodox synagogue, where he saw the blessing performed and was impressed by it.

Due to its popularity and impact on pop culture, the Vulcan Salute became a permanent fixture in written language with a dedicated Unicode Standard (U+1F596 🖖) and emoji symbol. The emoji’s American English short name is “vulcan salute” with keywords “finger”, “hand”, “spock”, and “vulcan”.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Terry W. Virts from ISS

The White
House referenced the Vulcan Salute in its statement on Leonard Nimoy’s death,
calling it “the universal sign for ‘Live long and prosper'”. The
following day, NASA astronaut Terry W. Virts posted a photo on
his twitter feed from the International Space Station (ISS) showing
the Salute as the ISS passed over Nimoy’s birthplace of Boston,
Massachusetts.

Because of
their common theme of space exploration, NASA has had perhaps the most
intimate connection with Star Trek of any government agency.
NASA even has a section of its website dedicated to the relationship between
NASA & Star Trek. On the 50th anniversary of the show’s final episode, NASA
published an article detailing 50 years
of NASA and Star Trek connections
!

The first NASA space shuttle was called the Enterprise named after the Star Fleet’s most famous Starship in response to a letter-writing campaign from fans of the television show. The Star Trek cast and crew even visited NASA’s Dryden (now Armstrong) Research Center for a photo opportunity when the Enterprise was rolled out.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Star Trek Cast with Enterprise Space Shuttle

Many Americans have been inspired to become astronauts after watching Star Trek, and some astronauts have even made guest appearances on the show. The casting of African American actress Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura broadcast a powerful message about the position of minorities and women during the height of the civil rights movement; Nichols even actively recruited a diverse crew of new astronauts in real life, including Guion Bluford (the first African American astronaut), Sally Ride (the first female American astronaut), Judith Resnick and Ronald McNair.  Mae Jemison was inspired to become the first African American woman in space, and later Jemison became the first real astronaut to appear in a role on Star Trek when she played Lt. Palmer in 1993.

In his
article, The Science of Star Trek, NASA scientist David Allen Batchelor
explores various features of Star Trek according to how
scientifically accurate or inaccurate they are, and comments upon the feasibility
of the show’s inventions. In some cases, these inventions had already been
achieved!

Immediately
following Leonard Nimoy’s death on February 27, 2015, there were many tributes
shared by those who were inspired by his achievements both on and off the
television and movie screen. U.S. Representative Adam B. Schiff submitted his personal tribute
to Mr. Spock
which can be found in the official congressional record.  

Therefore,
in the words of the beloved Mr. Spock, “Live Long & Prosper”!

Whether
your love of space is limited to the fictional world of Star Trek or the
real-life exploration of space & the final frontier, try this week’s
at-home experiment and make your very own STEM Satellite! Find the lesson plan
and supply list below.

STEM
Satellite Lesson Plan:

Share your
pictures with us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/HighTouchHighTechScienceMadeFun

Little Piece Picker-Uppers

Join High Touch High Tech in celebrating
National Chopsticks Day
February 6, 2021!

Image Source: Pixabay.com

It is said that you can neatly divide the world population by choice of eating utensil.  About one third of the world population eats with knife and fork.  Another third of the world  eats with their hands.  The other third uses chopsticks at mealtime.  For those of us in the knife and fork part of the world, eating with chopsticks may be especially challenging, even counterintuitive.  Why even bother with the delicate, tweezer-like balance required to eat with chopsticks?  Don’t be afraid of a cramped hand or dropped rice everywhere — learning to eat with chopsticks means you are joining in one of the oldest continuous culinary, cultural, and even technological legacies in the world.  Plus, folks on the chopstick side of the world say that East Asian food eaten with knife and fork just does not taste as good!

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Some of the oldest chopsticks ever found are around 3300 years old.  Chopsticks’ origins in Ancient China represent an innovative technological solution to environmental challenges.  They have proven to be such an innovative solution that their simple design has endured without modification for millennia, much unlike the fork, which is relatively recent, and in its oldest form was two long prongs rather than the multiple prongs commonly in use today.  One thing most cultures seem to agree on is the spoon, and it is known that spoons were in use in very ancient China even before chopsticks were invented.

Five thousand years ago, the small population of Ancient China depended on millet, not rice, and millet was often served as a gruel meant for a spoon.  But, as the population grew, people’s relationship to the environment and the food it provided also began to change.  More people were able to grow and harvest more types of food, but also began deforesting already sparse parts of the Ancient Chinese heartland.  In response to a lack of fuel, Chinese food evolved to focus on small, chopped-up pieces that could be cooked quickly, with a minimum of fuel waste.  Most of the Chinese food enjoyed today, such as stir-fry, still follows this “bite-size” pattern, as opposed to the more “lumpen” style of knife and fork food, such as steak and a baked potato. 

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Chopsticks, originally employed as cooking tools and plucked straight off a tree, became the perfect fit for Chinese food as it evolved.  Easily made of wood, bone, or even metal, chopsticks were in wide use among the people of East Asia before most people in the knife and fork world could afford the luxury of a fork.  Seen in the context of history, chopsticks are not counterintuitive at all.  In fact, they are a perfect example of a cultural adaptation to a difficult environmental challenge, as are so many of humanity’s best inventions.  The tweezer-like action of chopsticks makes them perfect for picking up even very small, precise amounts of food.  To understand the simple, enduring, form-follows-function perfection of this technology, all you have to do is look at the name: in the world outside of East Asia, they are known as chopsticks, but in Chinese they are called
“筷子“ which means, roughly “little piece picker-uppers!”

In the Western World, using chopsticks on a good day is challenging
enough! Imagine trying to use chopsticks without your thumbs! If you want to
test your skills managing chopsticks or completing other daily tasks without
your thumbs, try our at-home experiment, All Thumbs! Find lesson plan,
supplies, and tutorial video here:

All Thumbs
Lesson:
https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/If_Animals_Had_Thumbs.pdf
Video Tutorial:
https://youtu.be/hrDpVGbRZUY

Sources:

How to eat with Chopsticks:

How NOT to use Chopsticks:

An awesome two-part documentary on the deep cultural meaning of chopsticks in the East Asian world:
http://www.arirang.com/Tv2/TVCommon_NoStaff_Archive.asp?PROG_CODE=TVCR0478&MENU_CODE=100980&view_seq=31291&Page=1&sys_lang=Eng

Setting the World A-BUZZ, It’s National Kazoo Day!

Join High Touch High Tech in celebrating
National Kazoo Day
January 28, 2021!

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Our story begins in Macon, Georgia in the 1840’s. A
gentleman named Alabama Vest and his buddy Thaddeus von Clegg invented the
kazoo! They were trying to re-imagine an old African instrument called a horn mirliton
or onion flute.  Mirliton, is a device in which sound
waves produced by the player’s voice vibrate a membrane, thereby imparting
a buzzing quality to the vocal or instrumental sound. It was popular
during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The building materials of the horn mirliton were of a primitive nature. The tube was
made from the horn of a cow and the
membrane consisted of the eggshells of spiders.
The African horn mirliton was used to distort voices at tribe gatherings. Similar to when an actor would put on a
mask during a theatrical performance. 

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Thaddeus von Clegg

In the meantime, Alabama Vest and Thaddeus von Clegg
presented their version of the mirliton to the world at the Georgia State Fair
in 1852 as the “Down South Submarine.”

Later, a gentleman named Emil Sorg, who was a travelling salesman, came across a Vest and von Clegg “Down South Submarine” on one of his business trips. He showed great interest in it and may have been the first person to have coined the name “kazoo.”

He was eager to get this instrument into mass-production. With this thought in mind Emil Sorg travelled to New York. Here he became partners with Michael McIntyre, who was an iron smith. Together Sorg and McIntyre created the first production of the kazoo in the year 1912. McIntyre had now gained enough knowledge to maintain the production of kazoos all by himself. All he needed was a larger factory. In 1913 he separated from Emil Sorg and teamed up with Harry Richardson who owned a big metal factory. In 1916 McIntyre and Richardson renamed their partnership and turned it into a company called The Original American Kazoo Company.

As
other manufacturers of kazoos tried to get in on the sales, the pressure of competition
was rising. Therefore, McIntyre filed for a United States patent. It was a
feeling of great satisfaction and pride when McIntyre received his product
patent in 1923.

The Original American Kazoo Company in Eden, NY started manufacturing kazoos for the masses in a two-room shop and factory, utilizing a couple dozen jack presses for cutting, bending, and crimping metal sheets. These machines were used for many decades. By 1994, the company produced 1.5 million kazoos per year and was the only manufacturer of metal kazoos in North America. The factory, in nearly its original configuration, is now called The Kazoo Factory and Museum. It is still operating, and it is open to the public for tours.

Kazoo Fun Facts:
– The kazoo was played often in popular music in the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s
– Kazoos can be made of plastic, metal, wood, or other materials. Each has unique sound qualities.
– The tone quality of a kazoo is determined by the quality of the membrane or resonator
– You don’t blow into a kazoo; you HUM into it – HUM into the BIG end of the kazoo
– Kazoos are not toys – they are musical instruments in the mirliton or membranophone family

Check out these AWESOME Kazoo Tunes:
https://youtu.be/9zMbsDzNT90
https://youtu.be/TFEEmmYaqfA
https://youtu.be/xKyXMb3tcwM

If you’re feeling the “good vibrations” from your kazoo, check
out our harmonica and roaring cup at-home experiments to create your own little
music band! Find lesson plan, supplies, and tutorial videos here:

Roaring Cup
Lesson Plan: https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/roaring_cup.pdf
Tutorial Video: https://youtu.be/N4IJ3-B6ySE

Harmonica
Lesson Plan: https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/Harmonica-REV-6-28-2018.pdf
Tutorial Video: https://youtu.be/drRSYw-p5fo

Sources:

http://www.edenkazoo.com/history.php
https://www.nationalkazooday.com/facts.html
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/kazoo-museum

First in Flight – Kites

Join High Touch High Tech in celebrating
First in Flight
December 17, 2020

Image Source: Pixabay.com

What comes to mind when you hear this phrase? Orville & Wilbur Wright? The State of North Carolina’s motto and bragging rights? The movie Top Gun? We are taking this theme quite literally, trying to discover the actual first in flight. The answer is the kite!  They are certainly little flying machines that have astounded Man for centuries. There are millions of people around the world, that look up to the skies to watch or fly a kite. “What easier way to get from the ground to the sky”, said Benjamin Franklin when he was trying to figure out the nature of lightning. Kites set people’s imaginations wild.

The
earliest written account of kite flying was about 200 B.C. when the Chinese
General Han Hsin of the Han Dynasty flew a kite over the walls of a city he was
attacking to measure how far his army would have to tunnel to reach past the
defenses. Knowing this distance his troops reached the inside of the city,
surprised their enemy, and were victorious. How clever?

Kite
flying was eventually spread by traders from China to Korea, and across Asia to
India. Each area developed a distinctive style of kite and cultural purpose for
flying them.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Marco Polo

Marco
Polo carried stories of kites to Europe around the end of the 13th century.
Illustrations of the period show non-flying dragon kites on military banners.
Sailors also brought kites back from Japan and Malaysia in the 16th and 17th
centuries. Kites were regarded as curiosities at first and had little impact on
European culture.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Benjamin Franklin

Meanwhile
back in the Americas, men like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Wilson used
their knowledge of kite flying to learn more about the wind and weather. Sir
George Caley, a very important figure in aeronautics, who quite fancied
aviation himself, Samuel Langley, an astronomer, Lawrence Hargrave, an engineer
and explorer, Alexander Graham Bell, an inventor and scientist, and the Wright
Brothers, the aviation pioneers! All of these people have experimented with
kites and contributed to the development of the airplane, and our understanding
of flight. They have all contributed to man’s desire to reach for the skies,
and ultimately the stars.

Since
its invention, there have been many adaptations to the kite by various cultures
around the world. The kite you probably flew as a kid looks a bit different to
the original Chinese kites and even the kites of modern China. 

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Chinese Dragon Kite

A Chinese kite in ancient times would have used simple materials such as wood and cloth. They were often made to resemble the shapes of birds. Today, elaborate and large designs can be seen flying above parks in China. They will often resemble real animals and members of the Chinese Zodiac. Some kites will have LED lights attached to allow for night flights and fun light shows. There is even a kite museum where you can view designs and learn more about the history of kites through the ages!

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Weifang Kite Museum, China

But
how do kites actually fly? What is the science behind them?

First
let’s talk about airplanes.  An airplane
flies because the wings create lift. The air going over the wing is moving
faster than the air going under the wing, and this creates a low-pressure causing
lift.

In
terms of kites, lift is generated by differences in air pressure, which are
created by air in motion over the body of the kite. Kites are
shaped and angled so that the air moving over the top moves faster than the air
moving along the bottom. To launch a kite into the air the force of
lift must be greater than the force of gravity, just like airplanes!

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Who’s ready to fly a kite? If you’re ready, check out our at-home experiment: Chinese Kite! Grab your materials and follow along with the lesson plan to make your very own kite!
https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/Chinese%20Kite_REV%2012-09-2020.pdf

2020 Nobel Prize Winners in Science

Congratulations to the 2020 Nobel Prize Winners!
2020’s winners show us, once again, that Science, like the universe, is ever-expanding and the potential for scientific discovery is unlimited!

Nobel Prize Museum – Stockholm
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Chemistry

Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna: for the development of CRISPR-Cas9, a method for genome editing.

DNA
Image Source: Pixabay.com

Dr.
Charpentier and Dr. Doudna are the first team of two women ever to win the
Nobel Prize!  In what has been called
“the most deserved Novel Prize of the past 20 years,” Doudna and Charpentier’s
technique of genome editing has made an absolutely massive contribution to
science, with a potential to revolutionize the entire field of the Life
Sciences. The possibility of genome editing has existed since the 1970’s, but
thanks to Charpentier and Doudna, it is now much more precise and effective, easier,
and with a greater applicability to curing genetic disease than ever
before.  Using “chemical scissors” known
as Cas9, a DNA-cutting enzyme derived from bacteria, the technique can target
and snip up to a single faulty or unwanted gene, just as you would replace a
single letter in a misspelled word.  New
DNA can then be inserted at the snip. 
The insertion is repaired via the body’s natural rNA functions, and the
new DNA functions as normal.  The
CRISPR-Cas9 technique has only existed for 8 years and has already had an
impact on agriculture and pest control. 
Its potential for human medicine is enormous and a CRISPR application
has already cured a human subject of Sickle Cell Anemia.  Their discovery has revolutionized the life sciences
and unleashed incredible new potential. 
As colleague Fyodor Urnov puts it, “the 21st century will be the age of
CRISPR, thanks to Jennifer and Emmanuelle.”

Why the discovery is so major
How CRISPR-Cas9 works
Jennifer Doudna giving a TED talk about her CRISPR technique

Physics

Dr. Roger Penrose: for
the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general
theory of relativity

Dr. Reinhard Genzel and Dr. Andrea
Ghez: for the discovery of a supermassive compact object
at the center of our galaxy

Image Source: Pixabay.com

The prize for physics this year is for the proof that there is a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.  This discovery is spectacular in itself,  but all the more amazing for the fact that it was 60 years in the making!  In the 1960’s Oxford physicist Roger Penrose and his colleague Stephen Hawking used the mathematics of Einstein’s theory of relativity to predict that Black Holes inevitably exist and should be found at the center of every galaxy.  This impressive theoretical proof of black holes was so comprehensive it also reinforced the overall feasibility of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, first expressed in 1907.  In a stunning demonstration of how scientific discoveries are constantly built upon the legacies of those that came before, Penrose first proved the theoretical existence of black holes in the 20th century.  When the telescopic technology to measure them finally caught up to Penrose’s ideas, Dr. Genzel and Dr. Ghez were able to observe and conclusively prove that black holes existed in the 21st century!  Genzel first and then Ghez, building on the previous work, used high powered telescopes in Chile and Hawai’i to carefully observe the motions of stars over several years.  Their careful observations and calculations prove that there is a massive dark object in the milky way with millions of times more mass than the sun, a.k.a., a black hole.  Thanks to these three scientists’ generations of work, we now know beyond any doubt that black holes exist, and they are at the center of every galaxy.

An astronomer explains how the discovery was made
A Q&A with the brilliant Roger Penrose
Andrea Ghez giving a TED talk about her search for a black hole

Medicine:

Dr. Harvey J. Alter, Dr. Charles M. Rice, and Dr. Michael Houghton:
for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus

Image Source: Pixabay.com

In a year marked by a global viral pandemic, the fact that the Nobel Prize in Medicine went to a trio of virologists highlights how important scientific research is to public health.  The three virologists made a massive contribution to the lives and futures of people all over the world with their discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, which affects 71 million people worldwide and kills 400,000  people a year.  Dr. Alter, Dr. Rice, and Dr. Houghton’s discoveries allowed for targeted vaccines,  treatments, and now, a total cure.  Alter, working from the NIH in America, helped discover the Hepatitis B virus in the 1960’s.  But after that discovery, he was confounded by the fact that there was still another unknown disease-causing agent that resulted in hepatitis, especially after blood transfusions.  This unknown form of chronic, blood-borne hepatitis debilitated patients for years before it killed them, and represented a serious global health problem, particularly for vulnerable people in need of transfusions and blood-based treatments.  In work that demonstrates the highly collaborative nature of science today, the three scientists all provided an essential piece of the solution.  Alter was able to demonstrate that what he called Hepatitis C was a virus, Houghton used an untested strategy to isolate the genome of the virus, and Rice provided the evidence that the virus was the cause of Hepatitis C.  Thanks to these three scientists, the millions of people worldwide affected by Hepatitis C now have a chance to be free of this terrible disease. 

The story of the discovery
The Life and Research of Dr. Harvey Alter
Dr. Nazeem Afdhal giving a TED talk on Hep C and the 25 years of work towards a cure

Check out some of these fun at-home science experiments & give them a try! Who knows, you may just be a Nobel Prize winner one day!

All Thumbs
Space Case
Germ Game

Indigenous People Day: Irrigation Methods of Tenochtitlan

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
El Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan

Even today, 2,000 years after the heyday of the Roman civilization, tourists flock to Italy to see the iconic Roman Coliseum, the dignified Roman Forum, and the beautiful ruins of the city of Pompeii.  Although the average ancient Roman citizen enjoyed these treasures as well, the true pride of the city of Rome was its huge and efficient sewer system, its bountiful aqueducts, and its numerous public baths.   Roman civic engineering is world-famous today, and rightly so, but the Romans were not the only pre-modern civilization to reach incredible heights in the field of civic engineering.  The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which lies just under Mexico City today, supported almost half a million people in a clean, sustainable, easily defensible metropolis that surely would have knocked an ancient Roman’s sandals off!  Tenochtitlan was so innovative and yet so well-designed that the Spanish Conquistadores who witnessed the white-painted metropolis firsthand — studded with massive 60 meter tall pyramids, huge markets, and beautiful gardens fed by sophisticated aqueducts — thought that they were dreaming.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
European Map of Tenochtitlan circa 1524

There is an impression common in popular culture today that Native American groups lived in small, isolated, primitive groups, and did not build cities, or possess techniques of engineering or math.  In fact, the art of urban planning reached new heights from Bolivia all the way to The Pacific Northwest!  Although Tenochtitlan was certainly not the only major city of the Americas, it may have been the biggest, and, like Rome, it was a hub of trade and culture that attracted people from many different parts of their world.  The militaristic Romans surely would have been jealous of Tenochtitlan’s most defining feature:  it was a “floating city”  built in the middle of a large lake.  Much of the travel to and around the city was done by canoe, not on foot.  There were only three bridges connecting the city to the land, making the entire city an easily defensible fortress in times of war.  In the event of siege, the Aztecs had built in an even more astonishing feature: the city produced its own food in floating gardens known as chinampas, which could produce 6 to 7 crops a year.  Even the most hardened Roman Centurion’s jaw would be on the floor at the sheer genius of this seamless urban/military planning.

Image Source: Pixabay.com
Map of Tenochtitlan

About a thousand years ago, the Aztec people, who today prefer to be called the Mexica, were considered a rowdy, uncultured tribe among the many groups who populated the Valley of Mexico.  The fertile Valley of Mexico had already seen several urban civilizations come and go over the previous centuries, most impressively at the city of Teotihuacan, which boasts a pyramid as large as the ones at Giza. According to legend, it had been prophesized that the Mexica would build their great city on the site where they saw an eagle eating a snake on top of a cactus.  This image is now at the center of the Mexican flag, but when originally sighted it presented a problem: the sacred eagle was in the middle of a huge, marshy, mosquito-filled lake!  It’s more likely that their neighbors chased the Mexica to this undesirable real estate and trapped them there, but in any case the construction of this unlikely city is all the more incredible because it was the work of people we might call today “the underdogs.” 

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Surviving Mexica Chinampa

Undeterred, the Mexica got to work, and around 1376 began the long, laborious process of building their magnificent capital.   The chief architect and engineer of Tenochtitlan, Acamapichtli, had the innovative answer to building on marshland.  To anchor their buildings, the Mexica used 30 foot stakes of wood, driven into the ground and further surrounded by brick and rock.  This provided a surprisingly durable foundation for the city that eventually reached 14 square kilometers using this, and one other, technique.  The second technique, chinampas, created agriculturally productive land out of almost nothing.  By interweaving reeds and stakes and placing them on the rich, mucky bottom of the lake, the Mexica then piled on more soil until it reached the surface of the lake. This gradually created mats of vegetation that, as the roots grew in, became more and more stable and solid.  Over years, the mats, with their built-in irrigation system, became islands that could be planted and harvested up to 7 times per year, making it one of the most effective farming methods ever created.  Stocked with food, clean water, and stable ground on which to build, the city of Tenochtitlan boomed, and was larger (and much cleaner) than many major European cities when the Conquistadores arrived.  Although Tenochtitlan was razed and Mexico City built in its place, the wonders of the floating city prove without a doubt that the drive to innovate, engineer, experiment, and improve belongs to no one culture around the world, but to all of us.

To learn more:
Overview
Spanish Eyewitness
Engineering an Empire Documentary
In-depth paper on Hydrology and Chinampas
Life in Tenochtitlan

Are You a Coffee Head?

Image Source: Pixabay.com

It’s been said that Coffee is “the plant that domesticated humans.”  Although its exact origins are lost to history, we can be sure that coffee has had a meteoric rise in popularity around the world in the past 500 years.  In fact, coffee is second only to water as the world’s most consumed beverage!  Have you had YOUR coffee today?  Probably – in the US alone, people consume more than 450 million cups of coffee per day.

Image Source: Pixabay.com

It’s thought that coffee is native to the Keffa region of Ethiopia, where legend has it that a shepherd noticed his goats were more energetic than usual after eating the cherrylike fruit of the coffee bush.  A local religious teacher attempted to roast the beans and mix them with water, and when the resulting concoction proved VERY helpful at long religious ceremonies, the genie was out of the iced coffee bottle.  Strong trading  links across the Red Sea to Yemen saw coffee disembarking at the port of Mokha, and then across trade routes to the rest of the world.  Europeans developed a love for the drink in the 1600s, gathering in cafes to discuss events of the day over cup, after cup, after cup.  Some of Europe’s most influential scientific and philosophical thinkers were total coffee heads, and it’s been theorized that the caffeine boost of coffee, plus the community provided by the cafes, was a key factor in the European Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment!

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Not only was coffee very likely instrumental in the development of the modern world we all share today, it’s been theorized that the process of unlocking the flavors, and, of course, the caffeine, in coffee is one of all of humankind’s biggest shared projects.  However, the style of coffee you drink, when and where you drink it, and even who you drink it with can often be surprisingly different depending on where you are in the world.  Our relatively unified craving for coffee reveals an impressive diversity of tastes and habits that are evidence of some amazingly complex cultural and biological factors at play and is a fascinating illustration of the anthropological principle of “Unity in Diversity.”  No matter how you take it, it’s a fact that the world loves coffee!

Image Source: Pixabay.com

For example, if you are in Scandinavia, you may enjoy your coffee with small cubes of cheese curd soaking in it.  Before you say “gross!,” it might help to know that in Scandinavia, agriculture is difficult and people evolved a close relationship with dairy animals to survive.  In the harsh Arctic climate, a hot cup of coffee with an extra protein bonus in it can keep a person sustained all day. 

But if you are in Italy, it’s only the tourists who EVER drink cappuccino after 11am; this may have to do with the fact that many Italians are lactose-intolerant, and milky drinks may interfere with the digestion of food later in the day.

In Vietnam, you can enjoy a sweet coffee whipped with egg yolks rather than milk.  Vietnam has a major café culture, but in the Vietnam War, milk became scarce and innovative Vietnamese turned to egg yolk to replicate the smoothness of milk. 

If you are in the US, there’s a reason that the type of “normal coffee” you make in your office machine is known as “Americano” to the rest of the world.  It’s made with much more water than the tiny, concentrated espresso-based beverages enjoyed by most other countries.  It’s said that American GI’s did not like espresso but rather, missed the drip coffee they enjoyed at home, so grateful Italians obliged their “unsophisticated” taste by pouring espresso into water and the drink known around the world as the Americano was born!  Human ingenuity (and need for caffeine) knows no bounds.  What do you think the next coffee evolution will be? 

To learn more, grab a cup and enjoy these delightful videos:

The history of coffee culture.

Coffee’s journey around the world.

Unique coffees around the world today.

Native Communication

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

If a time machine dropped you into the Americas in 1491, what would you find? A vast, empty continent roamed by small bands of people, fighting to survive? No way!  Both North and South America before the arrival of Columbus played host to very large urban civilizations, powerful militaries, huge agricultural economies, and an impressive diversity of religions, languages and art styles.  Amazing feats of engineering were the norm in this world as people from Tierra Del Fuego to Baffin Bay carved out their lifestyles in wildly different ecological regions.  You might have seen evidence of this ingenuity in things like the Igloo, or the Tipi, but have you ever heard of the Inka Roads, or the floating city of Tenochtitlan?  Whether they were living in a huge empire or a small tribal nation, Native American people had to be creative in the ways they stored, spread, and communicated the information that each group needed to survive.  Let’s examine some Native American communication techniques that go WAY beyond the stereotypical “smoke signals!”

Inca Road
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite 770,000 square miles of terrain that encompassed the
highest, snowy Andes, the Amazon rainforest, Pacific Ocean beaches and several
fierce deserts, the massive 12 million strong Inca Empire innovated one of the
most rapid and efficient messaging systems in the premodern world! It relied on
a specially trained team of expert marathon runners to relay the messages that
were vital to the management of the huge empire.  Chaskis were elite endurance athletes
trained from childhood to run fast on some of the toughest high-altitude
terrain on earth.  Chaskis passed
messages anywhere along 25,000 miles of 
specially designed Inca Roads. 
They ran several miles at a sprint until they reached the next Chaski
station.  There they would pass the
message and the next runner would be off like the wind.  Chaskis took their job very seriously and
knew that if they were found to pass an incorrect message, they would be thrown
off a cliff.  Running their non-stop,
high speed relay race, they could pass a message from Ecuador to Chile in one
week, an amazingly fast result for the world before electronic
communication! 

Learn more about the Chaskis – Inka Teachers Guide
Learn more about the Chaski Runners

The Winter Count
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Large-scale empires like the Inca needed to know exactly
what was happening in every corner of their massive territory and had the
resources to train and support thousands of Chaskis for all their communication
needs.  But what about smaller scale
societies, especially nomadic ones that moved around a lot?  Sometimes there is a stereotype that small
scale groups like the Natives of the North American Plains were in such a
struggle for survival that they did not have time for things like technology,
history, and philosophy, but this is not true. 
The Sioux had a system of recording and communicating their history that
suited their needs perfectly: The Winter Count. 

In the Sioux world, years were not counted from Dec.-Jan.
but measured from first snowfall to the next year’s first snowfall.  At the end of the year, elders met to decide
what was the most important event of the year past; that event would forever
name and define the year.  A special
member of the group would design a pictograph representing the event and add it
to a special hide that showed each year’s pictographs in succession.  Some of these Winter Count hides ran over 100
years and could be constantly renewed by painting on fresh hide when the old
one decayed.  The keeper of the Winter
Count also served as the group’s historian, using the winter count to tell
stories of what happened each year, keeping the group connected to their past
and able to learn more about themselves for the future.  The Winter Count hide itself was easily
portable and made of simple materials, making it a perfect technological fit
for the highly mobile the Plains Natives. 

Get up close to a Winter Count Calendar

Horse Cavalry
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Because of their speed, agility, strategy and the general ability to rain down death from any angle while on the back of a speeding horse, North American Plains Natives are considered some of the finest horse cavalry fighters in world history, second only to the Mongols.  We may be familiar with Plains Natives’ incredible fighting style from movies, but movies do not capture the deep and respectful relationship with horses that marks Plains Native life to this day.  You may have seen Native horses in movies covered in paint and symbols, but did you know these symbols function like a language, communicating messages about both horse and rider at the speed of a gallop?  Different Plains Native groups have different interpretations, but to the Lakota Sioux, things like horseshoe shapes or a drawing of a buffalo indicated the riders’ success in previous battles, horse raids, and hunts, and things like a patch of color with dots or a handprint indicated the horse itself was experienced in battles, raids and hunts, all at a glance for friends and enemies alike to see.  In a world where mobility in the grass sea was key to survival, and horses were as dear as human relatives, the visual language of horse paint was an important expression of identity and status. Plains Native Tribes are frequently misunderstood as primitive, when in fact their way of life was often a finely calibrated and highly considered relationship with nature and each other that had evolved to fit the challenging ecological niche they occupied.

Lakota paint symbols used in “Dances With Wolves” explanation

Buffalo hunting scene from Dances with Wolves

People of the Horse, Native American Horse Culture Today

Birds Beaks & Adaptations

Discover the many ways that Birds use their Beaks!

Birds are a class of vertebrates with more than 18000 different species. Of the various features that are common to all birds, perhaps the most characteristic is their beak. All birds have one beak. But it has evolved differently in each species to improve its functions in response to its environment. These functions include feeding themselves and their young, defending themselves, grooming their feathers, mating, regulating their body temperature or building nests.

But what exactly is a beak?

In biological terms, it is a type of mouth in which the jaws have no teeth and are covered by a horny layer of a protein called keratin (like the nails or horn of a rhinoceros).

What are the different types of beaks?

Generally, bird beaks are categorized according to their shape and function. There are several different kind of bird beaks:
1. Hooked beaks: Owls, eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey that use their beaks to rip open flesh. They are usually meat eaters.

2. Cone shaped beaks: Goldfinches, sparrows and canaries are all good examples. They have a short, robust beak that ends in a conical shape, allowing them to break open seeds.

3. Short, curved beaks: Parrots and macaws have short curved beaks for splitting open hard fruits and nuts.


4. Straight, thin beaks: Bee eaters and Robins specialize in catching and eating insects with their straight and thin beaks. Woodpeckers also have strong thin beaks to peck through wood to find bugs.

5. Long, thin, needle-like beaks: Nectar feeders such as Hummingbirds swoop their beaks into flowers to find their food.

6. Wide, flat beaks: Filter feeders such as Flamingoes, swans and ducks have a filtering system in their beaks to pick out the dirt from the ponds and riverbeds.

7. Spatulate beaks: Wading birds such as spoonbills have large long beaks that help them pick up mollusks and small animals from the bottoms of ponds and marshes.

8. Large, long, and strong beaks: Fish eating birds such as pelicans, albatrosses and seagulls have long, curved beaks to catch fish and then prevent them from escaping. The pouch on a pelican’s beak helps it take huge gulps of water to store the fish in it. Herons and Cranes have long, strong beaks to catch fish.

9. Crossbill beaks: The Red Crossbill’s crossed bill tips may look odd, but it is in fact a clever adaptation to getting seeds out of closed pine cones.

10. Multifunctional beaks: A Toco Toucan’s beak is not just for show, this multi-purpose appendage can be used to collect and skin fruit, frighten predators, attract mates, and defend territory. Recent research has also shown that it also helps to keep the bird cool in the heat of the tropical day.

Learn more about birds and their beaks by participating in our HTHT @ Home Science Experiment:
https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/Bird%20Beak%20Activity_EOTD_April%2029th.pdf

Also check out this interesting resource, provided by Mystery Science, on nests and why birds lay eggs in the spring!
https://mysteryscience.com/mini-lessons/birds-spring?loc=mini-lesson-button#slide-id-8400