A Smattering of Science Poetry

Collage by Serena Epstein, click for source

“Prufrock” Collage by Serena Epstein, click for source

In high school I had a chemistry teacher who had once taught literature, and he had a tendency to quote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” at inexplicable times (usually when despairing over the state of our latest test grades).  I still hear “I grow old, I grow old,  I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled and walk along the beach” in his voice, in fact, and while I learned to love poetry long before sophomore chemistry, I think he’d be pleased that science and poetry have such an unbreakable covalent bond in my brain.

If you have a hankering for the poetry of the universe, the folks over at Brain Pickings have a great assortment for you, including the first poem to be published in a scientific journal, 30 Days of Quantum Poetry, Diane Ackerman’s poems of the planets, and more.

From Quantum Poetry by Joanna Tilsley

From Quantum Poetry by Joanna Tilsley

And if you’re looking for science poetry that works in a classroom, I highly recommend the humorous stylings of Doug Florian, the thoughtful works of Joyce Sidman (who has some great teacher resources on her author page!), and the beautiful compilation The Tree That Time Built, with works from a wide variety of poets on an assortment of natural themes and CD included so you can appreciate the poems read aloud.

Do you have a favorite science poet?

From Red Sings from Treetops by Joyce Sidman

From Red Sings from Treetops by Joyce Sidman, an exploration of the colors of seasons

Ideabox: Twigs

It seems like Spring’s only just decided to stay, but at the museum we’re already looking towards the fall and the September opening of Branching Out, Trees as Art.  I’ve been gleefully anticipating this show for a while now, and it’s finally getting close enough to start telling you about it!

ideabox twigs

As we’ve been investigating artists who work with assorted tree materials in surprising ways, I’ve come across some fun interdisciplinary ideas for exploring trees (especially twigs) in and out of the classroom.  Here are a few of my favorites!


Winter twig study – Indoor and outdoor ways to explore what trees are ‘up to’ in winter

Identifying parts of a tree (foldable) – A good way to practice scientific drawing and make an interactive vocabulary flashcard, from the Inspired Classroom blog.

Tree Study Foldable from The Inspired Classroom

Tree Study Foldable from The Inspired Classroom

A magnifying glass or dissecting scope will only get you so far, but check out these amazing photos of slivers of branches thin enough to distinguish the layers of cells:

Conifer cross section by Eckhard Voelcker

Conifer cross section by Eckhard Voelcker


Twig math?  Really?  Yes, really.  Check out this astonishing set of directions on how to make Skewer Hyperboloids – and then try it with twigs of the same approximate size!

Photo by Cindy Lawrence, see link above for source

Photo by Cindy Lawrence, see link above for source

Literature & Drama

From "Not a Stick" by Antoinette Portis

From “Not a Stick” by Antoinette Portis

Paeans to imagination are always a hit in my book, and Not a Stick is a  great option for dramatic play as well.  Round up a few helpers and one of the world’s simplest props to act out the scenes imagined in Not a Stick, then challenge your audience to do the same with some other every day material–blankets? Paper plates? Cardboard tubes?  See what other suggestions they come up with for imaginative play.

 Book buying options for Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis0
Pinterest collection for Not a Box/Not a Stick activities


twig painting

Twig or branch, individual or collaborative, painting can bring out natural bark patterns, and encourage close looking at details like knots and buds

A few weeks ago during the Mass Poetry Festival, we had a guest calligrapher, Elissa Barr, who demonstrated brushwork with a variety of natural materials as well as traditional ones.  One of my favorites was using a pine twig with needles still on as a great variegated brush.

Kid using a pine twig brush, photo from Rockabye Butterfly, click for link

Kid using a pine twig brush, photo from Rockabye Butterfly, click for link

Nature in the Neighborhood

It’s still a little cold to get super excited about a long ramble in the woods, but I like to think ahead, and the teachers from the Salem State Pre-K program and I had a great time a few weeks ago looking at ways to incorporate art and nature study into their year long theme studying neighborhoods.

As a librarian’s daughter and former English teacher, I believe strongly in centering lessons around stories.  Great stories make great hooks to engage learners of all ages!

Fiction and nonfiction related to local MA history and natural history

Fiction and nonfiction related to local MA history and natural history

So we started the day with a read aloud of MT Anderson’s The Serpent Came to Gloucester, which I love, not only because it’s based on actual history, but because the illustrations and sea-chantey-esque text are captivating.  We then made sand paintings, with glue, sand, sea shells and sea glass (some courtesy of the local beaches, some thanks to Christmas Tree Shop).  People made some beautiful designs!  I only wish I had thought to have related music playing in the background while we worked.

Inspired by the Delft tile-styled end papers in The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Inspired by the Delft tile-styled end papers in The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Mixed media sea serpent!

Mixed media sea serpent!

Sand Castle inspired by The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Sand Castle inspired by The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Next we moved on to oral history techniques that are useful with pre-k and other young students.  Download the discussion notes here: Oral History Projects with Pre-K  As part of this activity, we also worked with Twisteez wire to make a representation of our favorite toy from childhood, and talked about 2D and 3D ways of working art into story telling and personal history.

Recreating a childhood memory in wire.

Recreating a childhood memory in wire.

Art & Nature Center director Janey Winchell made a guest appearance to talk about great ways to get young kids involved in and actively observing on a nature walk, complete with a suggested Nature Walk scavenger hunt.

School Programs manager Emily Scheinberg also led teachers on an investigation of Salem  history in PEM’s collections.

What clues to Salem's past does a fire bucket hold?

What clues to Salem’s past does a fire bucket hold?

Finally, we wrapped up the day with a pair of observation activities: examining and understanding beach erosion via milk and cookies, and creating ‘viewing frames’ to take on a walk through the neighborhood to encourage close looking, thinking about perspective, and even the basics of composition.  These two activities were inspired by Corinne Demas’ The Disappearing Island and Dr. Seuss’ To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street.

Download activity directions erosion and frames

What do you see on the street?  In the sky?  On the buildings as you pass by?

What do you see on the street? In the sky? On the buildings as you pass by?

Decorating frames with a few of our favorite things.

Decorating frames with a few of our favorite things.

Sandstone and conglomerate...aka ginger cookies and chocolate chip.  Which will stand up to milk's erosive force?

Sandstone and conglomerate…aka ginger cookies and chocolate chip. Which will stand up to milk’s erosive force?

The beach before the milky waves, representing several kinds of rock!

The beach before the milky waves, representing several kinds of rock!

Want more?  Other classroom activities, read alouds, resources etc available for download here: handouts 2014

Inspiration from the Greats: Women Artists

Representation matters, and if you too noticed that all the artists mentioned in my previous post were guys, I am here to fix that with a round up of fun activities inspired by some great women artists.  If you know of other fun activities inspired by female artists that belong in this list, let me know!


Over at Mommy Maestra they’ve collected a bunch of possibilities for exploring Frida Kahlo’s work at different age levels (though mostly younger).  I was especially glad to see a  number of great books recommended!

Photo of Frida Kahlo.  Click for source link

Photo of Frida Kahlo. Click for source link

And in honor of the lady’s signature hairstyle, a fun set of directions on how to make a Kahlo-inspired floral headband.


There are a couple of useful links at Practical Pages, part of a long list of artist resources, in fact.  The two stand-out activities for O’Keefe feature setting up a still life inspired by her Skull & Roses painting, and using a computer-assist to emulate O’Keefe’s ‘zoomed in flowers’ style.  I personally think you could skip the computer step and instead experiment with a variety of magnification tools instead.  I’m a fan of the loupe style that means one can work hands-free (like the Private Eye style) — or a big tripod magnifier.  That way you can work in some math and science with thinking about scale and identifying flower parts.

Computer-zoom and 'pencil sketch' filter + watercolors

Computer-zoom and ‘pencil sketch’ filter + watercolors

And be sure to hop over to Grant Snider’s blog, “Who Needs Art?” to check out his beautiful webcomic about visiting the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.


Lots of the ideas I found for Mary Cassatt focused on process and on content (the importance of connection between the people in her paintings) as opposed to signature style.  Check out the directions for a cute pastel drawing activity, or these mixed media works inspired by Children Playing on the Beach.

Child's pastel drawing inspired by Mary Cassatt.  Click for source

Child’s pastel drawing inspired by Mary Cassatt. Click for source


Over on Practical Pages again, there are a few fun explorations of Morisot’s paintings.  The author relies more than I would on using traced outlines of actual paintings by the artist–but trying to pencil in the right proportions when copying a Sargent watercolor nearly defeated me last week, so I’m not going to object too strenuously.   I will, however, say that philosophically, I think sketching/doing one’s own line work is better in the long run for exploring the creative process.

That said, the blogger and her daughters made some amazing collages inspired by Morisot’s “The Cradle,” each turning out differently despite using the same line art to begin.

Collage inspired by The Cradle. Click for source.

Collage inspired by The Cradle. Click for source.

She also has a painting activity inspired by “The Butterfly Catchers,” which just begs for a unit done outside, with butterfly nets and a combined art/science observation lesson.

Finally, just as a new year reminder, Brain Popcorn also exists in a (less formal, more frequently updated) tumblr version, with bonus occasional posts about politics, geekery, and women’s issues to intermingle among the museum and education posts.  Drop by to say ‘hi!’

Fuzzy and Ferocious

…and yes, I realize it’s October, but at least this time I’m not talking about Halloween costumes.

As you all know, the Art & Nature Center reopens next week, and late last week saw the return of a venerable member of PEM’s collection: an 1886 bison, fur freshly brushed, etc., ready to take center stage in his new installation.  Watching the install was fascinating, and I’ve gotten to write up details about this item’s history and his exciting new future on PEM’s blog here: A Fine Furry Welcome.

There are no pictures of the author standing in front of a live bison in Yellowstone NP, because, unlike many tourists, she values her life.  Photo by the author's family, Wyoming, 2006.

There are no pictures of the author standing in front of a live bison in Yellowstone NP, because, unlike many tourists, she values her life. Photo by the author’s family, Wyoming, 2006.

Guess Who?

In the years I have worked in the ANC, I have had a lot of people tell me about their favorite pieces of the center—the Build A Bird interactive, the Wrenchophone, the harbor seal that hung out in the mammals case during Eye Spy.  I’ve also harbored a few secret favorites of my own, like the trio of eastern screech owls peering beadily from their crooked branch, or the scrimshaw piece that depicts Ben Franklin.  (Why would you make a scrimshaw portrait of Ben Franklin? These are the stories I want to know!)

Eastern Screech Owls, with an artist intervention during Eye Spy

Eastern Screech Owls, with an artist intervention during Eye Spy

In that time, however, the other ANC staff and I have also heard a lot about things people have loved in the past, and things they wish we could bring back, or do more of, or explore in a different way.  We’ve kept track, and considered all those assorted ideas and favorites in addition to the prototyping and surveying that I mentioned in my last post.  We then worked all of that into our plans for the re-envisioning of the Art & Nature Center’s ongoing exhibition.  Over the last year we’ve been mixing and matching, adding and rearranging, inventing and tweaking, until we were all really happy with the new plans.

Toucan origami folded by Michael LaFosse

Toucan origami folded by Michael LaFosse

So now, the checklist is set, the floor plans are shaping up, and the artworks are rattling their boxes, eager to leap onto walls and into drawers to be seen and admired by all.

(Okay, so that last part is a little bit of an exaggeration, but only because I can’t prove it’s true.)  In that spirit, here are three sneak peeks at some new wonders to see when the ANC opens in October. 

Take a good look, and make a guess in the comments below.  Do you recognize any materials?  Shapes?  Artistic techniques?  (Go wild, and I’ll post the answers in a few days.)

Mystery Object 1:

bc cropped

Mystery Object 2:

cwq cropped

Mystery Object 3:

pme cropped

Two Weeks to National Fossil Day

Every time I look at my inbox and start thinking that I really need to try to cut down on the amount that lands there on a daily or weekly basis, something cool invariably arrives to change my mind.  Case in point, this morning’s email from the National Park Service announcing the upcoming arrival of the very first National Fossil Day(TM) on October 13, 2010.

I like fossils.  I like love the National Park Service.  I had my career-epiphany-moment directly after taking a fossil hike on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

I opened the email.

So what is National Fossil Day?  Part of the 2010 Earth Science Week celebrations sponsored by the American Geological Institute, National Fossil Day  is “a celebration organized to promote public awareness and stewardship of fossils, as well as to foster a greater appreciation of their scientific and educational value.”

(In other words, a really good excuse to play in the dirt.  I always like those.)

The NPS website is a wealth of interesting information, a “rockin'” interdisciplinary list of activities, and other fascinating and fun stuff.  A few highlights include a map of the 230 national parks containing fossils (including ones in Guam and the US Virgin Islands) and fossil highlights from many of those parks,  a list of the official state fossils, and a list of events in your area.

If, like me, you take a look at all the amazing activity which is going to be on the National Mall in DC and want to cry into your Pleistocene soup from sheer envy, here are a handful of fun fossil-related activities and articles you can enjoy from the comfort of your desk chair.

Geology for Fossil Hunters, courtesy of the Exploratorium’s very cool site “Evidence: How do we know what we know? Human Origins”. Also including cool videos on virtual fossil reconstruction and other nifty topics.

Professor Allister McFragilis, Dinosaur Geo-Detective.  No, seriously. It’s an electronic field trip, or EFT put together by Bryce Canyon National Park, and has both online games and then downloadable lesson plans about geology and specifically fossils.

Dinosaur True Colors Revealed for First Time by pigments remaining in fossilized dino fuzz.

Pterosaur Ornithopter videos.  Which are apparently flying vehicles which mimic bird- or bird-like flight, specifically in this case, dino-bird-like-flight.  The key to this seems to be that the wings flap, as opposed to fixed-wing aircraft like normal planes.  Intrigued?  There is actually someone who has built and tested a successful human-powered ornithopter called the Snowbird, with a record setting 19.3 second flight, achieved just last week on September 22nd.

And, of course, more fossil fun activities and links at my previous post, “Dinosaurs, Art Photography, and Toddlers?

Dinosaurs, Art Photography, and…Toddlers?

Though you’d never know it from my last several posts, there are actually numerous cool and exciting things happening at the Peabody Essex Museum which are not related to Eye Spy.  However, since the Art & Nature Center is all about things interdisciplinary, we are frequently invited to come play in other departments’ sandboxes.

One great example was yesterday’s program planned by our Family Programs staff– “Dinosaurs at the Museum.”  Capitalizing on young folks’ interest in all things dinosaur, this program tied in to the current photography show on exhibit, Imprints: Photographs by Mark Ruwedel.

Klondike Bluffs Trail Site, #15 1999; Mark Ruwedel; Gelatin Silver Print; Collection of the artist, courtesy Gallery Luisotti (Santa Monica, CA)

A screening of the cartoon classic Land Before Time kicked off the morning, followed by make-your-own dinosaur feet (which tie on over your shoes, adorable!).  The program finished up with a trip upstairs to Imprints to see the very cool photographs, and yours truly in a pith helmet, hanging out with a pair of real dinosaur footprints in stone (three-toed carnivorous, 215 million years old), and a fossilized dinosaur tooth, both from PEM’s natural history collections.

The dinosaur tooth was my favorite story of the day: donated to the museum in a ladies’ scissors box from the  1800’s, it had with it a calling card and a sketch of a model from Harvard’s museum of natural history, back when it was called Agassiz Hall.  Interestingly, the card claimed it was a phytosaur tooth, but the sketch also identified it as belonging to a desmatosuchus.

Sketches from one of the fossil's owners which was donated with the probable-phytosaur tooth.

When my research on phytosaurs turned up nothing that looked like a desmatosuchus, I dug a little deeper to find out that while both are ‘archosaurs’ — precursors to the dinosaurs and looking rather like crocodiles — desmatosuchus was a plant eater and phytosaur a carnivore. I then got to present all the clues to our smallish (and even tallish) visitors and ask them which dino *they* thought our mystery tooth belonged to.  Great fun all around, and at least three short visitors, two of them girls, informed me that when they grew up they were going to find out for sure.  It made me smile (and think about the book Boy Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs, a fun read).

What did we decide about our mystery tooth, after all that?  Given the pointy nature of PEM’s mystery fossil, I’m throwing in my vote that our tooth once graced the mouth of a phytosaur, and the majority of yesterday’s visitors agreed with me…but I’d be happy for an actual paleontologist to come by and prove me wrong.

And so today I offer you some more ways to share the dinosaur-joy.

The World of Dinosaurs

National Geographic: Prehistoric World — Want to know what’s new in the world of dinosaurs and their neighbors?  Great articles, artistic reconstructions, and meaty issues here.

Jurassic Gardens — Create a terrarium populated with your favorite model dinos!

  • Useful list of supplies and possible plants from National Geographic here.
  • Inspiration for an outside dinosaur garden at Lucy’s Garden here.
  • Go organic with some of the other plant and compost suggestions from Organic Flower Gardening with Kids here.
Dinosaur fossil art created with the 'glue-resist' technique.  Credit to Gail Bartel. See link below.

Dinosaur fossil art created with the 'glue-resist' technique. Credit to Gail Bartel. See link below.


  • Making fossil-impressions with salt dough and coffee grounds from Kaboose here.
  • Pteranodons and T-Rex skulls from milk bottles directions here.
  • Glue-resist dino bones art directions  here.

Dinos Walking

  • See Sue run!  Make your own T-Rex flipbook, downloadable from the Field Museum here.
  • Songs and Fingerplays from AtoZkidsstuff.
  • Origami Dinosaurs, from simple to complex, with information about their species, here.