Walden Pond

imgresOn a recent trip to Boston, I found myself with a free day and no specific plans. Someone suggested a trip to Concord, Massachusetts and Walden Pond.

It’s been decades since I first learned about Henry David Thoreau and his two years in the woods.   How exciting it was to visit the area where he wrote Walden in 1854.

In addition to being known as a philosopher, writer and abolitionist, Thoreau is considered one of the first environmentalists with his many philosophical contributions to the way we view nature.   Thoreau was interested in people’s relationship with nature and studied this by living close to nature in a simple life. He published his experiences in the book Walden that argues that people should become intimately close to nature.   He felt that the physical environment inspires us. He wrote in his poem “Walking”: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wilderness”

Fast forward to modern times and think about the book “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv, where he states that humans, and especially children, are spending less and less time outdoors.   Louv contends that lack of being outdoors might be contributing to behavior and attention deficit disorders. Could Thoreau ever have imagined the electronic devices that draw children to be indoors? Could he even consider the fears parents often have of letting their children run free outside?

Consider an afternoon hike in the park or building in the outdoors into your daily routine.    Here are a few reasons you should go outside

  • Improved short term memory
  • Restored mental energy
  • Stress relief
  • Improved concentration
  • Sharper thinking and creativity

Click here for more information on each suggestion.





iPraxis is a Philadelphia-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization where we create opportunities for low-income students by increasing their interest and exposure to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines through inquiry and project based learning. We do this by bringing individuals with a STEM background (students, professionals, retirees, professors, and more) into these schools to mentor students on science fair projects, lead after-school clubs, give presentations, and simply make science fun and meaningful.

If you have a busy schedule and are unsure if you have the time, please note that there are many different ways to get involved with iPraxis, each with varying levels of commitment. So if you have any interest in volunteering and making a difference in the lives of Philadelphia’s youth, please contact Lonnie Affrime, Volunteer Director, at Lonnie@iPraxis.org or 856-669-7937. We look forward to working with you and changing the face of science!


The Islands of Lake Erie

searchIn early October I visited Erie Pa. to sit on a panel about Climate Change at an event called the Community Resiliency Summit.  The summit was hosted at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, http://www.trecpi.org which sits right on the edge of Lake Erie. I am a long time Philadelphia resident but I grew up in the Chicago area, with Lake Michigan practically on my doorstep.  Being near one of the Great Lakes for a few days was very exciting to me since I’ve never been to Lake Erie before.    I learned that during the summer months over 300,000 people visit Erie for their summer vacations.  I decided to delve deeper into the wonders of the fourth largest of the Great Lakes, and the tenth largest lake on Earth.

The water provided by Lake Erie for waterborne commerce, navigation, manufacturing, and power production has led to intensive industrial development along its shore, but the basin’s moderate temperatures have also encouraged recreation and agriculture.  Lake Erie is the warmest and most biologically productive of the Great Lakes, and the Lake Erie walleye fishery is widely considered the best in the world.   ISLANDS What I found fascinating is that there are about 37 islands in Lake Erie, about 19 of them inhabited to some extent.   Most of the islands are officially in Ohio, but some are part of Ontario Canada, with only one actually being part of Pennsylvania.  Some, such as Presque Island, the only Pennsylvania “island”, are former islands and now are actually peninsulas with natural forest areas and state parks.   Others have small populations such as Pelee Island, population 171 people, (an important flyway for migrating birds) or south Bass Island with its 631 residents.  Populations on some islands swell in the summer months.  Other islands such as East Sister Island are small, with very little besides thousands of birds.   A few are privately owned such as Mouse Island (owned by the family of former President Rutherford Hayes), and one, such as Kafralu is man made. I really enjoyed visiting Erie PA., but I’m not so sure I’d encourage travel there in December.  The winters there can be fierce.   It’s a 6½-hour drive (404 miles from Philadelphia to Erie) but I think it could be worth the trip in the summertime.  (Amtrak goes to Erie.  You might try taking the train).


I’m pleased to share that I am on the planning committee for the National Science Teachers Association’s 2015 Area Conference on Science Education in Philadelphia, Pa, November 12-14, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.  Please join me as we explore ideas and practices that enhance teaching and learning driven by the Next Generation Science Standards.  Learn more bout the conference at:  http://www.nsta.org/conferences/area2.aspx

World Water Day

WORLD WATER DAY, A day to celebrate, a day to change, a day to prepare MARCH 22, 2015 A recent trip to Nicaragua made me realize we have much to be thankful about when it comes to our water supply.  In most places in America, we turn on the faucet and out comes safe, clean water.  We never think twice about brushing our teeth, making ice cubes or drinking a glass of tap water. But for the first time in all my travels, I had a touch of discomfort while visiting the Central American nation of Nicaragua, and I think it was because of the water.  I would prefer that didn’t happen again when travelling!  The country was marvelous, with its collection of volcanoes, both active and dormant, lakes, islands, wildlife, good food and fabulous people.  But it is best for this American to peel all fruits, drink bottled water and eat cooked meals while traveling there. Although a national public utility in urban areas and water committees in rural areas provide Nicaraguan water and sanitation, population growth and demand have kept water quality poor.  Most locals there do drink water from the tap, but it is recommended that North American visitors drink purified bottled water.  This is because the water contains microbes that most of us aren’t used to. About 750 million people worldwide suffer from a lack of clean drinking water, and diarrhea caused by inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene kills an estimated 842,000 people every year globally. So as we approach March 22, World Water Day, we should celebrate water and realize that many members of the global population suffer from water related issues.  World Water Day is an initiative of the United Nations.  Each year another topic related to water is highlighted and the theme for 2015 is “Water and Sustainable Development.” For more information including events, free materials and celebrations of pure water go to http://www.unwater.org/worldwaterday


holly_corner_largeSince ancient times people have been adorning their homes with holly, evergreen trees and ivy in December.  During the cold dark days of winter, much of the landscape is dreary, but certain varieties of plant life remain green year round.  Some also produce bright red berries bringing a bit of cheerful color to an otherwise bleak landscape.  In order to get a sense of happiness and a hope for the future joys of spring, people began to bring in these evergreens into their homes. So how do evergreens stay green? Evergreen shrubs such as holly face many challenges during winter. Actually, cold temperatures are the least of the plant’s problems. Photosynthesis can occur in many plants when temperatures are at or a few degrees below freezing. The biggest problem for plants in winter is drying out. When the ground freezes, plant roots are unable to draw liquid water from the soil. Then the plant becomes dehydrated, and the plant cell membranes lose their shape and rupture, killing portions of the plant. Cell tissues can also die if ice crystals form inside cell membranes. In order to combat drying out, holly plants, evergreens and certain ivy have tough leathery leaves that are resistant to drying out. The thick waxy covering of the leaves allows the plant to live through the winter. Also, evergreen trees have needle-like leaves instead of broad flat leaves.  This shape helps conserve any water that remained from the warmer weather.

The Pumpkin and the Bee

pumpkin-300x189When you think of October, you think of pumpkins! We will have pumpkins to carve this month and pumpkins to eat in pie next month.  Pumpkins are so prominent during October and November we hardly give their back-story even a thought.


Cucurbita is Latin for gourd and this is the name given to the genus in the gourd family that includes the pumpkin we know well.  There are many species in this genus, including Curcurbita pepo, the slightly ribbed and deep yellow to orange thick-skinned pumpkin and Cucurbita argyrosperma  (Japanese pumpkin) or Cucurbita moschata (crooked neck butternut squash).   Pumpkins, including all squash are native to North America and are one of the most popular crops in the USA, with Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, California and Pennsylvania being the top pumpkin producing states.


But we could not have all these varieties of pumpkins if we did not have bees.  Pumpkins are usually planted in early July and begin to produce both female and male flowers in a few weeks.  In order to be pollinated and bear fruit, the male, and the female flower have to be visited by a bee.  The squash bee Peponapis pruinosaspecializes in visiting flowers of the cucurbit family: pumpkin, squash, zucchini, etc.  Squash bees emerge in early July.  The fast flying bees begin to forage, working between dawn and mid morning.  These squash bees are quite hairy, allowing a lot of pollen to accumulate on their bodies.  Honeybees, bumble bees, and several types of halictid bees also visit the flowers, but none is as skilled as this specialist bee. The squash bee and cucurbit plants are long-term partners. They have been refining their relationship for millions of years, long before Europeans came to this continent.  About one hive per acre is recommended for sufficient pollination.   However there is trouble in the pumpkin patch!  The delicate balance of ecological relationships has to be kept in mind when applying pesticides.  There has been a reduction of the numbers of squash bees (most likely due to pesticides) and farmers have been known to hand pollinate their crops if the bees are not there to do the job. For an academic explanation of the importance of bees in pollination check out this article from the University of California San Diego:   http://labs.biology.ucsd.edu/nieh/TeachingBee/importanceofbees.htm

The Truth About Cold Blooded Animals

imgresWhile cycling 140 miles last week on the C and O Canal, I had lots of time to think.  The trip took me 4 days, and it was quiet and peaceful.  Most of the time the only evidence of civilization was other riders or hikers, the occasional airplane overhead or the sound of a railroad train in the distance.  Otherwise it was like being alone in the forest. The trail, which runs parallel to the Potomac River, was constructed as a towpath along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to pull barges filled with lumber, agricultural products and coal, down the canal to market.   The almost flat towpath goes from Cumberland Maryland to Washington DC. The C & O Canal is full of natural scenery and wildlife.  I saw a herd of deer, a few snakes, Blue Herons, a Bald Eagle, some vultures, a fox and countless turtles.  It was the turtles, lounging in the sun at one of the many locks along the way, that made me think about the truth about being cold blooded. Those turtles were in the sun to keep warm, not because their blood is cold, but because animals that are “cold blooded” take on the temperature of their surroundings.  If it is warm outside, they are warm.  If it is cold they are cold.   A warm-blooded animal, such as the deer and fox I saw, maintain a steady body temperature, despite the temperature of their surroundings. If it is cold outside, or if it is warm outside, these “warm blooded “ animals maintain a steady temperature through metabolic means. warm-blood·ed (adjective) Relating to or denoting animals (chiefly mammals and birds) that maintain a constant body temperature, typically above that of the surroundings, by metabolic means.  Also known as homoeothermic. cold-blood·ed   (adjective) Relating to animals (mainly fish, amphibians, and reptiles) having a body temperature that changes according to the temperature of the surroundings   Also known as poikilothermic.

Wildlife Corridors and the C and O Canal

I rode my bicycle last month on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C and O Canal).  I finished 140 miles of the 184-mile long trail!  The trip took me 4 days and I had plenty of time as I rode mile after mile to think about and absorb my surroundings.  I realized that the towpath is not just a place for humans to enjoy, but it serves a valuable service for wildlife.  It is a wildlife corridor.   As we have developed and urbanized our landscape, corridors or contiguous protected habitat have become scarcer and scarcer.  Animals and plants need to be able to travel to ensure biodiversity and health.  If the animals stayed in one place, genetic diversity would decline and inbreeding would lead to vulnerability, disease and genetic disorders.  Even a small amount of movement of animals creates a more robust population.   Sometimes protected habitat areas are large enough to provide the needed space, but often they are without safe corridors to move the animals around. The corridors provide a kind of safety valve for protected habitats that are too small to allow movement.   Deer, fox, raccoons, squirrels, toads, beaver and muskrat all live along the C and O Canal.  These animals survive better if they can mate with a diverse population of their species.  Wildlife corridors also proved safe passage for animals.  Often animals are killed trying to cross highways or viewed as pests if they enter private property.   Most people riding the trail experience the serenity of nature but may not really think about human-caused factors such as fragmenting habitat of the species. The park provides a “living laboratory” that helps us better understand how to preserve these ecosystems.

Mimicking Nature- Woodpecker Head and the Bicycle Helmet

rhwp-usfwsHave you noticed the shape of most bicycle helmets?  There is a lot of science that goes into those helmets.  They are designed to be aerodynamic and lightweight.   They are also designed to protect the head if you should fall.  Helmets have a hard outer shell and a softer inner lining.   The hard outer part is designed to absorb the force of impact over a larger area, so as not to cause a concussion.  The soft inner part is designed to absorb any energy that might occur upon impact.   Interestingly, scientists are looking at the complex skulls of woodpeckers to figure out ways to make even better crash helmets for humans.  A woodpecker strikes a tree about 1,200 times a day at a speed of about 14 miles per hour, and never sustains injury.  Woodpeckers have four components that help them from getting concussions: an elastic layer supports the tongue, which stretches around the skull beneath the skin, their beaks are flexible, yet solid and strong, a spongy bone separates the woodpecker beak from the brain (in order to dampen the force of pecking), and there is a thin fluid-filled space between the skull and the brain (to minimize transfer of vibrations) Keeping in mind what they have learned from the woodpecker, scientists  and industrial designers are suggesting utilizing components of the woodpecker head to come up with enhanced  and safer ways to make helmets.   One British industrial designer from London’s Royal College of Art, Anirudha Surabhi, has designed a super strong helmet he calls the Kranium that helps protect cyclists’ heads by mimicking features of the woodpecker’s anatomy.   He has used an unlikely material for the inner liner of the helmet: a special dual density cardboard with a honeycomb structure.  This material beat out other contenders in his laboratory trials.   The cardboard inner liners are durable and quite easy to produce, and has its roots in the design of the woodpecker head.   The Kranium helmet is now on the market and available for purchase for about $130.00.   The next time you need a solution to a problem, the answer might just be in nature’s design.    Check with Mother Nature first before you begin!kranium_helmet_2