If you like to look at trees and bark and the pattern of veins in the leaves; if you are fascinated by clouds or specks on a ladybug’s back; If you love to split open rocks and see what’s inside, you are already an outdoor scientist. Best of all, you don’t need any special or fancy equipment, you don’t need to remember a charger, all you need is your eyes and the powers of observation.
Are there a set or two of paw prints in the snow? Three or four kinds of birds talking in a grove? What types of plants are strong enough to push their way through the cracks on the sidewalk? You may not always find the answer, but these are the questions an outdoor scientist asks about the world.
As summer approaches, here are five projects and experiments that will take you on your scientific journey into nature.
Make your own crystal
One way that crystals form is because magma, or liquid rock, cools. Different types and colors of crystals form depending on factors such as the temperature of the liquid and the time it takes to cool it down. It’s the same process with snowflakes, also known as snow crystals. You can see the crystallization up close if you leave a solution of water and salt at room temperature all night. The water evaporates and the salt crystallizes.
1. Bring water to a boil in a saucepan (adults can help if you are not allowed to use the stove yourself).
2. Stir in salt and add until it doesn’t dissolve anymore. The water should look almost clear with a few grains of salt swirling around (meaning you added a little more salt than the water can hold).
3. Transfer the solution to a glass.
4. Add a few drops of food coloring if you want to make colored crystals.
5. Tie one end of your string around the center of your pencil and lower the other end of the string into the glass. The string should be long enough that it almost touches the bottom of your glass.
6. Balance the pen over the top of your glass.
7. Crystals should form after a day or two.
Capture a paw print
Dogs and humans go way back. Just as we evolved from primates, dogs evolved from wolves. Dogs were the first animals to live with people. We call this domestication, which describes how a wild animal becomes our furry friend who watches Netflix on the couch next to us.
There are over 300 dog breeds today, but even after thousands of years of evolution, a dog paw and a wolf paw are still so similar that you can’t really tell them apart.
4 cups of plaster of paris
2 cups of cold tap water
Warning: Never completely immerse your hand or a pet’s paw in plaster of paris and remove it quickly while it is still damp. Plaster of paris gets hot when it dries and you don’t want to get stuck.
1. Spread the newspaper on your work surface.
2. Put plaster of paris and water in a plastic container and stir well with the mixing spoon until the mixture has the consistency of a pancake batter.
3. Pour the mixture into the aluminum cake pan and smooth it out with a spatula. Let sit for an hour to set.
4. Place your dog’s paw (or another animal’s paw / foot) on top of the mixture and press down about 1 to 2 cm – press firmly. Your dog will likely be more cooperative if you put the plaster container on the table and the dog on your lap. Remove the dog’s paw and rinse thoroughly.
5. Let the cast dry for 24 hours and you will receive a life-size keepsake of your pet’s paw.
Note: If you don’t have pets or animals outdoors, you can always use a human “paw”.
Measure a tree
You’ve probably learned that you can find out the age of a tree by counting its rings, but each ring is really made up of two parts. An entire year is represented by a lighter band of a layer of tissue known as a cambium and a thinner, darker band of cambium measured together. The light band shows growth in the warmer, rainier months and in good growing conditions. The dark band shows growth in the colder months and under difficult conditions.
Trees grow outward, which means that the center of a tree is the oldest part and the outer rings are the newest. The central core, or heartwood, is the strongest wood in the tree, although it is no longer alive.
Because human records of daily weather conditions go back so far Trees serve as useful tools for scientists studying climate change. Trees often live hundreds of years and can tell us about weather conditions long before humans started keeping track of things.
For more information on tree growth, see “How old is my tree?”. by Lindsay Purcell, which you can find at purduelandscapereport.org.
1. Measure the circumference (distance around) of your tree at a distance of about 3 m from the ground with your measuring tape.
2. Using your calculator, divide that number by 3.14 (which is roughly pi).
3. Multiply this number by the “growth factor” of your tree. The “growth factor” is an average estimate of how your tree species will grow over time. The International Society of Arboriculture has published a table of growth factor numbers by tree species that you must search for on Google or refer to a guide to trees to complete the formula for measuring your tree.
4. The result is the age of your tree. For example, if your silver maple is 20 inches in circumference and you divide that by 3.14, you get 6.369. Multiply this by the growth factor (3) and you get 19,108. That said, your tree is around 19 years old.
Create a constellation map
The night sky has always been important to mankind, especially as a navigational tool.
Star gazing is no longer as easy as it used to be. The main reason is light pollution. When we think of pollution, we tend to focus on it Water and air pollution because they directly affect what we drink and breathe. But light pollution has long impaired our ability to see the night sky in cities and suburbs.
One exciting citizen science project to participate in is capturing the night sky from where you live and sharing it with people around the world to track light pollution. To participate, visit the Globe at Night website.
1. Measure the circumference of the lens of your flashlight with a drawing compass. Copy the measurement onto cardboard with your pencil.
2. Cut out some circles for different constellations. These should fit snugly over the lens and inside the flashlight’s lip (if your flashlight doesn’t have a lip you can use tape to hold it in place.) It’s important to leave a tab on the circle that is slightly larger than it is An eraser that you can use to draw your circle off the edge of the flashlight.
3. Find pictures of constellations on the Internet or in a book on astronomy.
4. Use your pencil to mark points on your circles that look like your constellation pictures.
5. Punch holes in the points with the tips of your scissors.
6. Insert a disc into the top of your flashlight. In a dark room, turn on the flashlight and aim it at a blank wall or ceiling. Have fun looking at your constellation!
Make a pine cone bird feeder
Birds need four basic things: food, water, shelter, and a place to lay their eggs. Most of the backyard birds common in North America, such as goldfinches, blue jays, robins, hummingbirds, cardinal and sparrow, feed on nuts, seeds, fruits and nectar. Ospreys, large shorebirds, like fish and dive into the water to take them in. Up the food chain: herons like frogs, roadrunners like reptiles, falcons eat other birds, owls like rodents and vultures eat almost anything, including roadkill.
Pine cones (if you don’t live near pine trees, you can buy a pine cone at a local craft store)
Birdseed (can be bought at a grocery or pet store)
Butter knife (optional)
Branch or other place to hang the feeder
1. Tie a piece of string around the top of a pinecone so that you can hang it up later.
Pour about an inch of bird seed on a plate, enough to roll up your pine cone.
3. Drizzle honey over your pine cone. (Do this above the plate to catch any honey that drips from your pine cone.)
4. Once your pine cone is covered in honey, roll it around on your plate in birdseed until it is covered. You’ll often have to use a butter knife to get into the nooks and crannies.
5. Hang your pine cone on a branch and move a safe distance to watch the birds come to eat.
From “The Outdoor Scientist” by Temple Grandin, Ph.D., published by Philomel Books, a reprint from Penguin Young Readers Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Temple Grandin.