Science Friday

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

~John Muir

I realize that I’m borrowing (stealing) today’s title from NPR, but I just love the Science Friday program so much that I’m going to call it a ‘tribute’ instead.

I’m really into themes.  Perhaps it was the years of submitting lesson plans for evaluation, but I actually can’t leave for a trip without having a science topic ready to discuss as our theme for the trip.  I don’t really explain this fully to the kids because I do want them to think of our trips as a fun vacation instead of something closer to summer school, but its just so easy to incorporate science into our everyday exploration of the world.  The thing is, when you’re out there experiencing it the kids don’t even realize they are “learning”  until they start making connections with things they’ve learned at school.  Their eyes light and up and they get so excited when they can speak knowledgably about something they know, and I can almost see the new neural pathways being formed as the knowledge takes on a permanence of its own just by the activity of recalling it and/or linking it to prior knowledge.  I can’t tell you how many times the kids have been on a trip and recognized a topic from the prior school year, or been in school and recognized a topic from the previous trip!

Learning is fun, universal, and a life-long adventure.  Choosing to spend your vacations out in nature learning about the world teaches the kids this idea on a very intuitive level.  Most likely, they’ll have a better attitude towards learning, which will make them successful in school, which will ensure they go to a great college, which promises they’ll get a great job and meet a great spouse and have beautiful kids that they can support all by themselves, which in turn, of course, allows you to retire early and travel more.  See?  It all works out.

But, I digress.  This post was supposed to be about my science theme for the Southern California trip (Itinerary #1).

Today’s quote is one of my all-time favorite John Muir quotes.  This central concept in biology, that everything is connected to everything else, is a universal and fundamental topic of science.  If the kids can wrap their heads around what it really means, they already have a great foundation for studying life science as they progress through school, and through life.  The best part is that children can understand this topic at any age.

To focus on this universal idea, I decided that studying Ecosystems would be a science theme for this trip.   The study of ecosystems gives us an opportunity to learn so many important aspects of ecology.  Here are just a few things you can show your kids on this trip:

  • The connections between living things and their nonliving environment.
  • The differences between various North American ecosystems.
  • That we find certain species in some ecosystems but not in others.
  • How different species have adapted to challenges or change in their environment.
  • How different species share the resources in the same environment.
  • The different food webs of the ecosystem and how each species plays an important role in the life of another species.
  • How humans are protecting and/or changing the ecosystem.

There couldn’t be a better opportunity to teach about the diverse ecosystem’s of the United States than while exploring the state of California.  On this trip alone, there are rivers, estuaries, rocky beaches, and sandy beaches.  There are glaciated mountains, lush forests, caves, lakes, and deserts.  There is just so much to see, and to emphasize to the kids that all these different ecosystems can be found in half the state of California, I think is a very unique teaching opportunity.  Make the effort to teach them some science vocabulary as you travel.  Incorporate the words as you hike and explore and the kids will easily gain a deeper understanding of their meaning and have a little bit of a leg-up when they head back to school.  Here are three simple but important vocabulary words to ‘casually’ work into your conversations during this trip:

  • Ecosystem – includes all the living and nonliving things in an environment
    Examples:  coastal beach, forest, desert
    Conversation Starter:  How do the animals that you’ve seen on this hike use the non-living parts of the ecosystem?
  • Community – all the different species of living things that live in an ecosystem
    Examples:  different plants, insects, or mammals in a forest
    Conversation Starter:  How do all the different animals in this forest use this tree? (think of the insects, birds, rodents, reptiles, etc.)
  • Population – includes all the members of one species in a particular area
    Examples:  Sequoia Trees, Cholla cacti, seaweed
    Conversation Starter:  Where do you see the wildflowers growing on this hike?

Here are some teaching ideas for the specific parks in the Southern California Itinerary:

Joshua Tree National Park

  • Make a desert wildflower scavenger hunt for the kids.  Their website has a fantastic list of blooming wildflowers each season.  Print out pictures, label the backs, and let the kids search for them.  Mine really enjoyed it and we learned that lots of flowers grow in the desert!
  • Go to Keys View and point out the infamous San Andreas Fault, the place where the North American and the Pacific Plates touch!  Here is a fantastic website full of information on the faults in general and the San Andreas specifically.  Ask the kids what they think happens to the nonliving parts of the environment after an earthquake.  Then ask them how those changes in the environment could change the species that live there.
  • Here is a great story about a Joshua Tree named Lily.  These whimsical trees look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book and believe it or not, kids love learning about the role they play in the desert ecosystem!

Joshua Tree National Park, 2009 – Girls working on our desert wildflower scavenger hunt!

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

  • The Sequoia trees are the largest living organisms on Earth!  Their sheer volume is mindboggling, which makes them such a great focus for a discussion on populations.  As you walk through the Giant Forest, have the kids run around and touch every Sequoia tree they can find, then ask them how they know?  Get them to talk about which features make them different than any other plant in the woods.
  • Kids love finding the very large sugar pinecones.  It’s interesting that these pinecones are so large, but fall from a  relative small tree, whereas the Sequoia pine cones are fairly small.  Anyway, this is a great opportunity to talk about communities!  Even though they’ve already found Sequoia trees everywhere, the kids can see that all the different pine cones laying on the forest floor represent a community of trees that live in the forest with the Sequoias.  Ask them how all the different trees might share the same resources (soil, water, light) in the forest.  Also, the junior ranger packets might have a scavenger hunt already set up for the different pine cones and tree species.

Sequoia National Park, 2009 – Arwen proudly displaying a sugar pinecone.

Yosemite National Park

  • The mountains and valleys of Yosemite provide a great opportunity for discussing the living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) factors that affect an environment.  Water is the easiest to talk about and most important nonliving factor that is necessary for life.   When you are hiking around the waterfalls, point out any moss you see growing on the nearby rocks, or small plants you see clinging to the cracks in the granite, or the fish and plants living in the runoff streams.  Start a conversation with the kids about how they think freshwater influences the life they see.  Ask them where they think the water comes from, and where they think its going.  Teach them that “water is lazy” and they will remember forever that water is always trying to find the easiest (lowest) way down.
  • Glaciation is another nonliving factor that can shape an ecosystem and glaciers play a major role in forming the geological features you see at Yosemite.  First, explain to the kids what a glacier is and when they occurred.   When you are in Yosemite Valley talk about how the valley was formed through the advancement and recession of consecutive glaciers during the ice ages.  If you have the extra time, plan a bus ride up to Glacier Point and enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime view of the work of Glaciers in shaping this environment!  Here is a very informative page on the geology (study of rocks) and hydrology (study of water) of Yosemite.
  • The meadows of Yosemite are beautiful and offer an excellent opportunity to explore the biodiversity of this ecosystem.  Even with staying on the designated boardwalks and paths, the kids can see an enormous amount of life in a very small area.  Have them count how many different species of life they can find!

Yosemite National Park, 2009 – Aubrey walking in Sentinel Meadow.

Pinnacles National Park

  • Explore a cave and get the kids talking about a very unique ecosystem!   The abiotic factors (rocks, light, and water) all play an important role in determining which organisms can live in this special place!  Many children think that nothing can live in caves, but use this opportunity dispel incorrect notions and have fun looking for new critters!
  • Pinnacles is located near the San Andras Fault and some of the cave formations were actually created by the fault action and long-ago earthquakes.  Remind the kids that they saw this same fault down in Joshua Tree and that the fault line extends all the way through California.  Find a map in the visitor center to point this out.  Kids love learning about anything that has to do with earthquakes!

Well, I think that’s enough for one Friday!  Hope your planning is successful, and as always, contact me with any questions or comments!

Happy Trails!

4 thoughts on “Science Friday”

  1. You are an excellent travel writer. I want to take my family to Yosemite some day & your blog will help it happen. I visited the home of John Muir in the Bay area & found it fascinating & a great tie-in with Yosemite.


  2. Thank you so much Jim! I can’t wait to go see the Muir Woods sometime. We are actually going to be in San Francisco in a couple weeks for a softball camp, so I’m going to try and fit in a visit there. The bay area could be a whole week just by itself! You’re family would have a wonderful time in Yosemite.


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