Exploring Alternative Energy – Hydroelectric Dams

In STEM Club, we are immersed in energy resources presently – so a field trip to a hydroelectric dam is the perfect field trip.  Shasta Dam, the 2nd largest dam in the country (after Grand Coulee in Washington state) is in our backyard – so it is the perfect field trip.

Hydro DamsShasta Dam is a curved gravity dam across the Sacramento River in the northern part of the U.S. state of California, at the north end of the Sacramento Valley. Like another curved gravity dam (Hoover Dam), it was a continuous pour concrete project, and in its day, ranked as one of the great civil engineering feats of the world.  The dam is 602 ft (183 m) high and 3,460 ft (1,055 m) long, with a base width or thickness of 543 ft (165.5 m). The reservoir created behind Shasta Dam is known as Shasta Lake and is a popular recreational boating area.

generator at shasta dam

Hydroelectric power is universally known as one of the cleaned, most efficient and inexpensive ways to produce power. Hydroelectric power is electricity generated using falling water.  At Shasta Dam, as water races down pipes (penstocks) towards the power plant, that water is directed at the blades of a water wheel (turbine).

The turbine is coupled to an electric generator by a long shaft.  The generator consists of a large, spinning “rotor” and a stationary “stator”.  The outer ring of the rotor is made up of a series of electromagnets.  The stator is comprised of a series of copper coils.  As the rotor spins, its magnetic field induces a current in the stator’s windings thereby generating electricity.

The five generators at the Shasta Dam have recently been upgraded by the Bureau of Reclamation, replacing the turbine portion of each generator.  This increases the plant capacity to 710 megawatts, with each unit running at 142 megawatts.  Utilizing the latest technology in design, the new turbines are more energy efficient.

Our visit this past week to the dam was not our first.  We toured the Shasta Dam facilities when we first moved to California.  Even so, we all learned something new and enjoyed the experience.  One of the highlights was discovering that since the Shasta Dam is a curved gravity dam, we could hear our echo bounce back and forth when we yelled across the span.  Additionally, one our first tour, we were most impressed by the train tunnel – as my son was passionate about trains at that age.  He is now more impressed with engineering marvels and as a result, he stayed close to the tour guide the entire time asking many questions.

Minecraft Model Shasta DamWhen we returned home, he created a model of the dam in one of his Minecraft worlds. Proving once again that Minecraft is educational.  He is now brainstorming ideas to create a three dimensional model showing how electricity is generated and transmitted to our homes.

If you are interested in touring a dam in your area or simply learning about dams from the comfort of your home – I have created a FREE set of notebooking printables to guide you along on your study.  These printables are a small part of my newest mini-unit, Alternative Energy Resources: Hydroelectric Dams, a 13 page ebook available for purchase in my store. In the coming months, I will be releasing a complete curriculum for energy resources.

Keeping a Nature Journal: Getting Started in 5 Exercises

Children are naturally inquisitive.  They are excited to learn about the world around them and to explore new things.  The media and advances in technology, however, threaten this natural curiosity.  Children today are more easily able to tell you more about the particulars of a Wii game than they can tell you about the plants or animals in the park near their home.

nature journaling in 5 exercisesI don’t ever want my children to lose their fascination with the natural world, to lose interest in a bird hopping along the sidewalk or squirrels chasing each other around a tree outside our window.  I want them to forever marvel at the water droplets glistening on branches after a heavy rainfall and to smile in delight when a dragonfly alights on their toes while floating down the river.

Rachel Carson said it well when she penned, “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.”

With intentional teaching of how to use a nature journal, children can walk away with life-skills that encourage scientific and aesthetic observations, creative and technical writing, perception and analysis, questioning, synthesis, focus, self-expression, and reflection. Clare Walker Leslies’ books are a catalyst to do just that.  She inspires, encourages, and mentors, even the most reluctant.  She gives you the feeling that everyone can be a naturalist and find success in using a nature journal.

Keeping a Nature Journal

Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie is one of my favorite resources for nature journaling. Her encouragement to slow down, observe, reflect, and embrace my connection to the living, natural world compelled me to read the book from front to back in one sitting.  I couldn’t put it down.  Her words were so encouraging and invaluable to me.  She conveyed “that drawing is at once a way to see … and the door to a deeper sense of affiliation with the earth.” 

Kids love to explore so why not combine this natural affinity with the life skills of writing, drawing, and sharing.  Nature journaling is very flexible – students can write poems, diagram an animal, describe a scene in prose, or press a beautiful leaf or flower within the pages of their book.  They can share it with family and friends and find joy in discovering the natural world together.

Art, science, writing, math, social studies and other fields of study can be interwoven within the pages of a student’s journal.  Walker’s book is a welcomed resource in encouraging easy and fun ways for getting excited about nature journaling.  Her descriptions are clear and easy-to-follow and beckon learners of all ages to become connected with their own places and landscapes.

getting started in 5 exercisesHere are a few ideas for getting started . . .

  • Choose a place near your house or school.  Spend twenty minutes or so sitting and paying attention with all of your senses to everything that surrounds you.  What do you smell?  What do you hear?   What do you see?  When you are ready, begin recording as many details as you can in your journal (Don’t forget to record the place, date, time, and weather at the beginning of your entry).   Return to the same place some time later and do the same exercise.  Do this throughout the course of a few weeks, months, or years and keep track of how your special place changes.
  • Sit in a place where you can see the sky without trees or buildings blocking your view.  Look up and draw the clouds as they float over your head.  Clouds do not stay the same shape for long so you will have to draw quickly.  Label the cloud images you see . . . my daughter once saw a dragon breathing fire on a castle — all in a cloud!
  • Park yourself near a bird feeder and write about/draw the birds as they come to eat.  Try to describe the flying style of different birds.  Describe the sounds they make.
  • Listen to the wind.  The wind makes some great sounds as it blows through different trees, a person’s hair, a flag, a boat’s sail, your baggy pants, etc . . . Try to listen to the wind’s various sounds and record them in your journal.  Try to imagine what the wind is saying to you.
  • Pick up a leaf and try a blind contour drawing.  Don’t take your eyes off of the leaf or your pen off of the paper as you try to draw the leaf’s details as accurately as possible.  When you think you are finished look down at your paper.  You may get a chuckle as the lines may only loosely resemble the leaf you thought you were drawing.  However, with practice your blind contour drawings will improve because your hand will learn to follow your eyes more accurately.  This kind of drawing without looking works well with trees too.  Blind contours of birds and squirrels and other creatures who don’t like to sit still to have their portrait drawn are more difficult.

Investigate Alternative Energy with Toys

In our Quarterly box from Bill Nye, we received a couple of fun toys that provided us the opportunity to explore alternative energy resources. As we are studying energy in STEM Club this trimester, it was the perfect opportunity to investigate alternative energy with these toys.

This post contains affiliate links.

alternative energy toys

As was expected, Buddy was immediately drawn to the  Salt Water Fuel Cell Car while Sweetie was interested in the “cute”  Solar Powered Grasshopper Kit.  As such, there was no argument over who would build what kit – Bliss!

Buddy had no difficulty putting the little car together.  He needed help only with smoothly clipping off the little plastic stubs that remained on the pieces after breaking them apart.  As he put the final pieces together, Sweetie mixed up the salt water solution.  The instructions state that any salt to water ratio will function but the most efficient ratio was 1:5.  We had just reviewed ratios in math so this was the perfect real-life application of the skill. The task enabled me to also explain the concept of efficiency.

Both of the kids loved the Salt Water Fuel Cell Car – Sweetie even exclaimed, “It would be awesome to have a big fleet of these cars in different colors!” They enjoyed playing with the car for nearly an hour.  A few times, it stopped running and they worked together to figure out the problem.  Sometimes, it was a little debris caught under the wheels.  Other times, there was too much salt water or dirt that clogged up the mechanism.  They would clean it off and let it rip once again.  I loved that they ran into the supply closet and began to set up a track for the car.  Sadly, the car was just a smidgen too wide for the track but they stated they were going to build something another time.

The Solar Powered Grasshopper Kit was also fun – but their interest in this was short lived.  The instructions were easy to follow and Sweetie had it put together in only a few minutes.  We took it outside and watched it hop about.  The kids delighted in discovering that if they cast a shadow over the grasshopper, it would stop moving.  They moved on to the car shortly after and showed little interest in the grasshopper thereafter.

NYE01 also included a mini-sundial kit.  A sundial is a device that tells the time of day by the position of the Sun.  The sun casts a shadow from its style onto a surface marked with lines indicating the hours of the day. The style is the time-telling edge of the gnomon, often a thin rod or a sharp, straight edge. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadow-edge aligns with different hour-lines. The DIY activity included in NYE01 was simple and provided us an opportunity to further explore how people, animals and even plants have been using the sun to tell time throughout the ages.

We had such fun with these alternative energy toys that we ordered another kit and look forward to playing with it soon … the Thames & Kosmos Wind Power Kit.  This kit includes two styles of wind turbine blades and a gearbox with three different gear ratios for experimenting. The wind spins the turbine, which turns an electric generator, which in turn charges rechargeable AA batteries.  The kids can then use the wind charged batteries to power the model vehicles they build. The six models include a glider, sail car, jet car, tractor, race car, and tricycle. They can also experiment by adjusting the angle and number of wind turbine blades to make best use of the wind, the make the LED light up brightly, and to charge the rechargeable battery as fast as possible.

STEM Club: Cells – The Building Blocks of Life

Today’s STEM Club was a lot of fun; we made edible models of plant cells and though we got a little sticky, everyone was able to summarize the function of the cell organelles.  After we cleaned up, the kids were given the opportunity to make their own slides (onion skin and cheek cells) so they could observe real cells under a microscope.  At home, my own kiddos spent a little more time with the microscope, sketching and labeling the organelles they could identify under magnification. To aide in remembering the function of cell organelles, the kids also enjoyed creating an interactive tool for their science notebooks.

cell structure

Big Ideas

  • All organisms are composed of one or more cells.
  • Cells carry out important life functions including taking in nutrients and releasing materials, obtaining energy, and growing.

Background Information

All living beings are made up of cells. Some of them are made up of only one cell and others have many cells. Cells got their name from an Englishman named Robert Hooke in the year 1665. He first saw and named “cells” while he was experimenting with a new instrument we now call a “microscope.” For his experiment he cut very thin slices from cork. He looked at these slices under a microscope. He saw tiny box-like shapes. These tiny boxes reminded him of the plain small rooms that monks lived in called “cells”.

Look around at your house and the houses around you. They are made from smaller building materials such as wood, bricks and cement. So are the cars in the street and the bike you ride. In fact, everything is made from building blocks including living things. If you take a look at your home you will notice it is enclosed by outer walls. All cells are enclosed within something called a plasma membrane (sometimes called the cell membrane). The plasma membrane is not exactly the same thing as the wall in your house, but it does hold parts of a cell inside. These parts of the cell are what biologists call organelles (Latin for little organs).

By the help of microscopes, there is nothing so small as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible world discovered to the understanding. ~ Robert Hooke

If you look at very simple organisms, you will discover cells that have no defined nucleus (prokaryotes), others that have a nucleus and many organelles (eukaryotes), and cells that have hundreds of nuclei (multi-nucleated). Humans may have hundreds of types of cells.  The thing all cells have in common is that they are compartments surrounded by some type of membrane. The main purpose of a cell is to organize. Cells hold a variety of pieces and each cell has a different set of functions that are unique to each type of organism.

Cells are amazing. They are all made of similar building blocks but they do many different things depending on how they are programmed. Some cells carry oxygen to parts of our body. Other cells defend against invading bacteria and viruses. Some cells are used to carry oxygen through the blood (red blood cells) and others transmit signals through out the body like the signals from your hand to your brain when you touch something hot. Some cells can even convert the sun’s energy into food (photosynthesis). There are hundreds of jobs that cells can do. Cells also make other cells in a process called cell division – something other building blocks can not do.

Plant cells are easy to identify because they have a protective structure called a cell wall made of cellulose. Plants have the wall; animals do not. Plants also have cell organelles like the chloroplast (which contain green pigments or chlorophylls where photosynthesis takes place, giving plants their green color) and large water-filled vacuoles.

edible cells


As the kids worked together to create an edible model of a plant cell, I distributed a handout that defined the role of the organelles in detail.  I also compared the cell organelles to a factory, giving a real life analogy for each cell function.  These descriptions were easier for the kids to remember.  As they worked, I walked around and ‘quizzed’ everyone on the role each organelle played in the cell function.  At the conclusion of the class, I distributed a diagram that labeled the cell parts and included small little flip books.  They were instructed to cut out and glue each into their notebook, numbering each to correspond to the diagram and handout.  If you would like these handouts, you may download them for free simply by subscribing. These printables will be included in the next Science Logic curriculum unit to be released soon.


  1. Observe onion cell and cheek cells under a microscope and sketch the cells you observe in your notebook.
  2. Create a model or poster of an animal cell.
  3. For a challenge, you may wish to try out this fun DNA extraction lab:  http://ucbiotech.org/resources/display/files/dna_extraction_from_strawberrie.pdf
  4. Research cell division (mitosis and meiosis) and create a flip book to illustrate the stages of cell division.
  5. Here are a few great websites to allow further exploration of cells:

To receive the free printables like the one shown here … Subscribe to My Newsletter

10 Awesome Science Gifts for a Young Scientist

The Christmas season is fast approaching and I know many of you are scratching your heads trying to come up with creative gift ideas that will surprise and delight that special someone. If you are like us, you also want a gift that is educational and perhaps inspirational, not one that will likely end up in the rubbish months later.  Today, I share with you 10 awesome science gifts that will surely inspire your science minded loved ones.

This post contains affiliate links.

10 Awesome Gifts for a Young Scientist @EvaVarga.net

Gifts for a Young Scientist

Groovy Lab in a Box

One of the most exciting popular gifts available today is a subscription to an activity kit. One of my favorites is Groovy Lab in a Box – a monthly box overflowing with science experiments for you and your child to explore together. Recommended for ages 8+, older students may find success in doing the activities independently.

Every month, Groovy Lab in a Box sends a 20+ page lab notebook and everything required to complete the STEM-based experiments inside. Each box is just $26.95, less for longer subscription options.

For the Chemist

Crystal Growing Kit

The 4M Crystal Growing Experimental Kit is a lot of fun and a wonderful introduction to the study of crystals. The steps are simple and all you need is boiling water. Everything else is provided in the kit. Be careful to follow the instructions carefully and crystals start growing immediately and are full size in just 7-10 days.

Salt Water Monster Truck

We received the Salt Water Fuel Cell Monster Truck in our #NYE01 box from Quarterly.  My kids were excited to give it a go and enjoyed taking it out for a spin our driveway.  The kit is well designed and easy to assemble. I think this would be a fun project for any child with an interest in science and engineering.

For the Engineer

Build it Yourself RobotiKits

Another gem that arrived in #NYE01 was a Solar Powered Grasshopper Kit, also by OwiKit. The parts are very small and the enclosed instructions are graphics based – a child versed in Lego should not have difficulty putting it together.  The grasshopper is a build-it-yourself educational solar hobby kit specifically suited for the first time science experimenters.  Kids with little or no experience can explore the potential of solar power – opening a world of possibilities. I’ll write a more detailed review soon – again, we’ll be pulling these out in the next few days while visiting family.  Best of all, this cute little critter is only $7 – the perfect stocking stuffer!

Snap Circuits Alternative Energy Kit

Many homeschoolers are familiar with Snap Circuits.  Are you aware that an Alternative Energy Kit is also available?  Since the previous two kits are all about alternative fuels – this is a great kit for kids with some prior experience with circuits and alliterative fuels. Like other Snap Circuits kits, the parts are all clearly labeled and easy to snap into place. This green kit includes an FM radio, voltmeter, and a fan/windmill, which are all favorites.

For the Naturalist

Keeping a Nature Journal

Nature journaling is a major component of our homeschool science curriculum.  My kids love recording their observations using a variety of art media (colored pencil, chalk pastels, watercolor, pen and ink, etc.).  Much of our inspiration for tying new techniques comes from the book, Keeping a Nature Journal.  Clare Walker Leslie and co-author Charles E. Roth offer easy techniques, exercises, and prompts for all ages. This is not a drawing technique book but inspiration.  If the child’s goal is to draw nature and record what she sees/experiences, this is a book she’ll treasure and refer to often.

Monocular Pocket Spotting Scope

Lastly, it is difficult to journal a bird you observe when it is so far away you can’t see details.  For the budding naturalist, consider a monocular pocket spotting scope. The Bushnell Monocular Scope has a rugged, waterproof design that is perfect for kids. The 9 X 32 mm size is compact, lightweight, clear and easily handled. It’s great for birdwatching and fits easily in your young naturalist’s pocket.

Cell Phone Macro Lens

Another idea for nature lovers is a macro lens designed to clip onto a cell phone. We have several of these on hand at the marine learning center where I volunteer and the visitors have a great time using them as they engage with the live exhibits. For under $15, you’ll want to put one in everyone’s stocking.

For the Computer Programmer


Piper is by far my favorite gift for kids interested in computers and computer programming. It is a complete DIY kit that provides young children with the chance to not only build their first computer but also learn about electronics along the way. Best of all, the kit grows with them. Included is the popular Raspberry Pi computer that budding makers can use in a variety of other projects. They are limited only by their own imagination.

Creation Crate

Creation CrateAnother exciting subscription box is Creation Crate, designed to help you learn about electronics. Surprisingly, this box isn’t just for kids – it’s suitable for anyone age 12+ who wants to learn or enhance their electronics and coding skills. The subscription costs $29.99 per month, and you’ll get to learn how to build simple electronics project without any experience required. It’s fun and definitely educational!

They are giving away a 12-month subscription, enter today. Subscribe and get 10% off your first box.


I hope you’ve found inspiration for your young scientist.  If you have other ideas – please leave a link and comment below.  🙂

STEM Club: Bird Anatomy

To the delight of the kids, we’ve moved into vertebrate animals in our 10-week survey course this week. I created a chart (similar to the invertebrate chart I shared previously) with which the students could use to compare and contrast the five vertebrate animal classes as they took notes during the lecture portion of class.  However, I was surprised to discover that they could essentially fill it out without any input from me. They were experts on vertebrates.


Birds belong to a larger group of animals called vertebrates (animals with backbones) and they make up a special group or class of the vertebrates called Aves.  Aves is the Latin word for bird.  All birds share many characteristics.

Feather Lab

Birds are the only animals in the world with feathers. There are two main types of feathers: contour feathers, which are found on the bird’s body, wings, and tail; and down feathers, which are fluffier and softer and lie close to a bird’s body, under the contour feathers. I showed the class a contour feather and explained that the hard center tube is called the shaft and the rest of the feather is the vane.  The shaft is a hollow tube made of a very hard material called keratin (the same material of which a reptile’s scales and our fingernails are made).

The vane is made up of hundreds of barbs that look like skinny hairs coming offing the shaft in rows.  Under a microscope you can see that tiny barbules grow off each of the barbs.  These barbules have rolled edges on one side and tiny hooks on the other that interlock side by side much like a ziplock seal.  We observed a feather beneath the microscope and the kids were encouraged to sketch and label their observations.  Encourage the kids to sketch and label the parts of a feather in their notebook.

Download the lab notebook printable, Feather Lab.

Bird Anatomy

We then talked about the other characteristics that make a bird different from other animals – wings, bone structure, binocular vision, excellent hearing, poor sense of smell, air sacs attached to each lung, and a crop and gizzard to aid in digestion. We played a fun relay game and then focused on bird adaptations using a number of stations that were set up to simulate bird beaks.

fill the bill thumb

We discussed the shape and design of different bird beaks and how the design helps birds to survive.  Eight stations were set up around the room, each with a different type of “food” that fits one of the eight different types of beaks described (e.g. styrofoam peanuts in a small aquarium of water to represent fish, a test tube of water to represent flower nectar). At each station there were three tools (e.g. chopsticks, pipette, tongs, slotted spoon), each representing a different type of bird beak function – one tool that worked well to get the food and two that didn’t work so well.  The students were asked to visit each station and to decide which tool would be the most efficient.  They were then asked to identify which food different birds would eat based on the shape of their beak.

To accompany this activity, I’ve created a slide presentation, Fill the Bill, available as a free download to my subscribers (a thumbnail is shown above).  Following this activity, we gathered in teams to play a relay-style game called Pass the Part.  The kids had a lot of fun.  Both of these activities were adapted from activities described in Birds, Birds, Birds! (Ranger Rick’s Naturescope Series).

Extension Activities

To expand upon what we covered, I suggested many extenstion or enrichment activities and the students were encouraged to choose at least one to do at home.

  • Begin a bird life list and go on a bird outing. You can find numerous local bird checklists online. 
  • Consider entering the US Fish & Wildlife Federal Junior Duck Stamp Program and Scholarship Competition.
  • Find a picture of your favorite bird (or draw one of your own) and then label the parts of the bird (crown, rump, breast, belly, primary feathers, nape, crest, throat, mandible, chest, thigh, chin, eye-ring, tail feathers, etc.)
  • Draw pictures of birds in their nature journal – use a field guide to help with details
  • Use Barb’s Outdoor Hour Challenge as inspiration to observe and study bird feet – Woodpecker Bird Study
  • Do a research report on a bird of choice
  • Create a poster that compares/contrasts the five vertebrate animal groups
  • Do a bird survey in your backyard.  I’ve created a free notebooking page to aid in recording your observations.

Download the Bird Survey Data Form

bird survey notebooking page

I’d like to encourage everyone to do the bird survey.  This is a fun family activity and a great way to contribute to ongoing citizen science.  Get started now and become acquainted with the birds in your area.  You will then be very knowledgeable, and can easily identify most (if not all) of the birds in your backyard for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count in February 2014.  I will be sharing more about this wonderful citizen science project as we get closer.  I hope you will join us.