Monday, February 24, 2014

Kids' Experiments: The gravity of the matter

The first of the Kids' Experiments will focus on my wheel-house: physics.  We will start by exploring the motion of objects - beginning with those influenced by gravity.  These aren't the most exciting of experiments, but they are essential for a solid foundation so we can do the fun stuff later!

Kids' Experiments: Teach it Early, teach it often

I spent some time with my five-year old niece this weekend and, as always, I was blown away by how much she already knows about the world around her.  Of course, as her doting aunt, I think she is incredibly brilliant, but the educator in me firmly believes that most of her success in learning is because of the amazing job my brother and sister-in-law do at keeping her rapidly developing mind engaged.  While many kids have the benefit of such involved parents (and other relatives), Iz is incredibly advantaged because a.) she has a ton of science and technically savvy role models in her family (two engineers, two physicists, a med student, a linguist - and that is just my siblings and sibs-in-law!) and b.) those role models (mostly her parents) engage her in scientific thought in a way that makes it fun.

For her fifth birthday, the rooster and I (the two physicists) made a year of science experiments for Iz to do with her parents.  I want all children to have the advantage of being able to learn this stuff early (when it is much easier because you haven't convinced yourself that things work in ways that they really don't!) so I am going to make the experiments we put together for Iz available to anyone who wants them as the series "Kids' Experiments."   They will be much more extensive in detail than their original form.  Most of the document is a guide for parents/guardians/educators to learn the material well so that they can adapt the material and can guide the child in his/her scientific exploration.

In terms of time commitment, I anticipate it will be big!  My brother and sister-in-law can spend a week or more on one of these topics in terms of preliminary discussions, pointing stuff out in everyday life, and follow-up discussions (the actual experiments are generally under 30 minutes!).  It is not "all science, all the time," but Iz (and her younger brother, and other highly engaged children I know) have inquiry peppered into  life (not just at special educational times) and this is the approach I would recommend with these modules - don't just sit down and get it done all at once.

In practical terms of use, stuff in blue and instructors worksheets are for adults only and should never ever be directly told to a child.  I really love the approach of teaching science (and specifically physics) by never actually telling a student the answer but by asking guiding questions to help him/her arrive at the answer on their own (Is this the Socratic method? - teehee).  College students hate this!  Like, REALLY hate this.  But it's important for people to go through this process to really learn (and more importantly, to unlearn misconceptions!).  This is why it takes so long.  But it will be worth it when the child you love is able to make amazing extrapolations about what they have learned so far.  And the investment you make in your child learning science early will allow that child to learn more science much more easily later on (again, we are talking real science, not stamp collecting).  And just as with monetary investment, the earlier you start, the bigger the eventual pay-off will be.  Start investing today!

And as is the case with Iz, I am always happy to answer any questions that arise in the course of your experiments. I know kids ask confounding questions sometimes! Don't hesitate to ask!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Contoured Memory Foam Pillowcase

  The rooster and I both love our contoured memory foam pillows but I was tired of using ill-fitting standard pillowcases if I wanted to match my decor.  I couldn't find any tutorials for a contoured pillowcase, and this won't be much of one, but it will be an outline of an approach you can take, should you wish to make one for yourself.

There were really only two things I wanted from my pillow case: It had to be asymmetric so that there was more material on the curvy side than on the flat side (so that the case would actually fit!) and it had to have an envelope opening because I am sick of pillowcases sliding off.  If I didn't have the envelope opening, it would have been a lot easier to make.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Easy Recipe: Sweet Potato Crumble

This is pretty much a sweet potato casserole that isn't pretending to be a side dish.  The filling can be pureed to make it more like a pie filling, if you prefer.  You can likely omit the sugar from the filling all together and it would still be delicious (since the candied yams are... well...candied).  Butter and salt can be adjusted significantly (or perhaps even omitted entirely) depending on your preferences and health needs.  You can also omit the pecans.  Try adding 1c oats (in addition or instead of the nuts).

Note: Candied Yams are not actually yams!  They are sweet potatoes (apparently there is a difference, but it is a difference I intend to continue to ignore).  Feel free to use fresh mashed sweet potatoes, if you like (and want to control the sugar).

Monday, February 17, 2014

Modern Wives' Tales: Give up the funk (We don’t want the funk)

I love onions and garlic (and other members of the allium family e.g. shallots, leeks, chives)!  However, I have a very sensitive nose (my youngest sister calls me a smelly person). I often have the problem of, having chopped an onion or garlic to prepare the evening meal, and having washed my hands thoroughly with soap and water after said preparation (and then again several more times throughout the evening), waking up the following morning with onion funk hands!

Note:  This chemistry will probably work well for other offensive smells due to thiols (e.g. skunk!) but I don't plan to go get sprayed by a skunk to find out.  If you have occasion to test this hypothesis, please let me know (and also, sorry you got sprayed by a skunk - that stinks!).

There are numerous Old Wives’ Tales that claim to remedy this situation.  The one that prompted this post was rubbing your hands with stainless steel.  Intrigued, I looked into the literature of onion funk before designing two experiments.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Easy/Fast: Mushroom Sauce for Pasta

This has a rich mushroom-y taste, even just using button mushrooms, and, more importantly, cooks up in less time than it takes to cook your pasta.

Preparation time: 5 min
Cooking time: 10 min

  • 4 Tbsp butter or alternate saute oil
  • 16 oz whole mushrooms - separate the stems from the tops, chop the stems, slice the tops.
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced (I use the jarred stuff, so you probably should reduce this if you use fresh)
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1/4 c grated Parmesan or similar
  • Salt & Pepper & herbs to taste

Start your pasta water boiling and prep your produce.  Melt the butter in large skillet over med-high. When it is fragrant and bubbly, add onions, garlic, and mushroom stems.  Cook until soft (4-5 min), stirring occasionally.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Gift Idea: Super Cheesy Card

I know it's a bit late for you for Valentine's Day (unless you are like me, in which case, this will work well for a last minute idea), but I always have a hard time buying cards to go with gifts.  It feels a bit weird to me to pay upwards of $4 for someone to kinda sorta say how I feel for me.  So I usually just ignore it and a shove a gift at someone, mumbling "This is from me, I hope you like it."  Except when it comes to St. Valentine's Day. 

When the rooster and I started dating, for some reason, though it is quite out of character for both of us, we decided to have a sickeningly sweet first Valentine's together (perhaps because we weren't actually together - we were dating long distance).  So I made him a little booklet with an illustrated poem. 

Though my rhyming skills have fallen off over the years, and it seems they get uglier and uglier as the years go by, the tradition of me making him a little illustrated booklet in lieu of a card has stuck.  They are not very pretty to look at - that's kind of part of the tradition - but they are heartfelt and they always have a theme. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Forgiving Sew Projects: Ruffled Round Throw Pillow

I have seen a few similar tutorials online about ruffling but not much dealing with the "knife-edge" type pillow (as opposed to one that is more disk shaped).  Here, using leftover fabric from my duvet cover, I make a simple, round, ruffled, throw pillow.  The ruffling is what makes it so forgiving of messed up measurements, crooked sewing, and other gaffs.

We start with two strips of fabric of equal length and width (I am going to rip off the hemmed edge on the piece shown here).  The dimensions of the strips depend on the dimensions of the pillow. I would recommend doubling the circumference for the length and having the radius plus 2 inches for the width.  Making the strip shorter means you will have fewer/shallower ruffles.  Making the strips narrower means you will have to have a larger center piece.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Intro to Mad Science Mondays: "What" Is Not Enough

Every Monday or so on my blog will be Mad Science Monday.  On these days my posts will be related to science.

  •  I have mentioned on my Facebook page that I will have a series "Modern Wives' Tales: Examining, Explaining, Debunking or Improving Old Wives' Tales."  
  • I also intend to have small blurbs about the science that occurs in the home arts (I foresee a lot related to cooking, since cooking is mostly chemistry!), like the mentions I have already made in recipes (e.g. why you should bloom your spices before using them in a slow cooker). 
  •  Most importantly, I plan a series of educational activities for children.
To understand why I plan to have these posts (and why they are different from the majority approach of the world), it is helpful to understand some of my philosophy about science and science literacy.

I taught Physics for Elementary Education Majors for a number of years.  Most of my students resented having to be there because they "wouldn't be teaching this stuff to kids".  But I always started the semester with a little motivation.

Science is not about knowing a set of facts.  Science is a way of thinking about the world.

When I was a kid, the only "science" we had in elementary school was identifying things.  We named the clouds.  We named whales.  We named dinosaurs.  This is not science.  This is stamp collecting.

Happily, our education system is changing, and students are learning to focus less and less on "what" and more and more on "how" and "why."  Kids are naturally curious about the world they live in. They observe and test how it works.  They ask "why" (Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?)  It can be really annoying at times!

Somewhere along the line, most people stop doing this.  But when we stop asking why and how, we are less able to critically evaluate the world we live in.  We don't ask how and why about the line a politician is feeding us.  We don't ask how or why about the claims some manufacturer is making about a product.  Every day we are asked to make decisions with our votes and with our pocketbooks and we will be ill-equipped to do so if we don't approach these decisions with a scientific way of thinking (understand, I am not saying cold or unemotional).  As the National Academy of Sciences puts it, in addition to understanding some aspects of science facts (what one might consider "book learnin"), a scientifically literate person can pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.  Don't you think an increase in this rational approach, say, in the political arena, would benefit society greatly?

My Mad Science Monday posts are my attempt to infuse science into our daily lives.  It will never be enough to simply observe what happened.  For instance, when I post about what best works to remove the onion funk from your hands, I will never leave it there.  You will know how and why.  I expect to spend hours reading academic journals about the compounds released by the onion, the interaction with the skin, and how to neutralize it.  I will put it in non-scientific terms but I will never dumb it down.  When I post kids' science experiments, it will never end at "see what happened."  Sometimes the parent or guardian won't know the answer. Sometimes the answer is a little too complicated for developing minds. But it isn't science unless you at least think about how and why a thing happens.

Here's an example of when asking how and why can help avoid catastrophic consequences.
 To illustrate why delving into the how and why of a what is important, consider the low birth-weight paradox (an example of the very fascinating Simpson's Paradox). The "what" here is that low-birth weight children born to smoking mothers have lower infant mortality than low-birth-weight children born to non-smoking mothers. If we were to stop here, to not consider the how and why of this observation, we might decide that women who are at risk of delivering low birth-weight babies for other reasons should begin (or continue) smoking through pregnancy. However, because we know that smoking is generally bad for health, we intuit that this makes no sense.
We are right. We have to think of the how and why. Smoking during pregnancy causes increased likelihood of low birth-weight. So the infants born to smoking mothers will represent a whole range of conditions, but most of them will only have low birth-weight and no other health conditions to contend with. The infants born to non-smoking mothers are generally of normal weight. But, of course, at least some of the babies born to non-smoking mothers will still have low birth weight. And these babies will typically be of low birth-weight because they have some other malady that is a much greater risk to their health than low birth-weight alone. By focusing only on the "what" and not the "how" or the "why," we gloss over the proper conclusion to the data: smoking doesn't make low-birth weight infants healthier; it makes generally healthy infants low-birth weight.
Of course, this case seems obvious to us, but if we don't think about why and how, we don't think about what other information we might need to make a decision (here it would be useful to know the relative numbers of low birth-weight to normal birth-weight infants in each group!).

I think that approaching life this way is important because it is empowering.  Of course, there are questions in life that will never have a testable answer (then we get into philosophy and theology), but to understand the mechanisms of the world around you is to be able to influence those mechanisms.  I want that empowerment everyone, especially our children.

*End motivational speech*

If you have some science-y topic you would like to know more about, please let me know.  In the comments, I’d like to hear about your experiences with science in school!  Also, has there been a time when you have been (or wished you were more) empowered by science literacy?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Easy/Fast: Slow Cooker Red Beans & Rice

Disclaimer: The "fast" part is in the preparation - you know, since slow cookers are, by definition, slow.

This recipe is adapted from a stew recipe in the book Slow Cooker Revolution, which, if you want to really learn how to be a slow cooker ninja, I highly recommend.  It is very hearty and freezes great.

Pro Tip about "blooming" aromatics and spices.
You should "bloom" your onion, celery, garlic, and seasonings by microwaving or sauteing with 2Tbsps of oil for about 5 min (stir halfway in the microwave) or until the onion is soft. Blooming makes a big difference to flavor because a.) Your slow cooker doesn't reach the temperatures necessary to cause the chemical reactions that make the beautiful onion-y, herb-y, and spice-y flavor complexities and b.) These flavors are soluble in oil, not water so it is useful to first extract the flavors into an oil (olive oil and butter are my favorites) and then distribute that oil (and thus the flavor) throughout the dish.With out blooming, the great flavors of your herbs and spices remain trapped and cannot reach their full potential. When I am in a hurry, as I was here, I skip the blooming before slow cooking and I always regret it.

Prep Time: Less than 10 minutes
Cook time 5-7 hours on High, 9-11 hours on Low + 30 minutes on High

  • Recommended: 2Tbsp of some oil 
  • 1 Large onion, chopped
  • 1 rib celery, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced 
  • Seasoning
    • 2 bay leaves (I use more because mine are pretty old)
    • 1/4 tsp Cayenne pepper
    • 1/2 tsp thyme (you can really up this you like more herb-y-ness)
    • 2 tsp paprika
    • Generous grinding of pepper
  • 1 lb dried red kidney beans
  • 14oz (or 1 package) of your preferred sausage (I use a smoked sausage, but andouille would be great), cut to your preferred size (I prefer to quarter the link then slice in 1/2 chunks so I get a piece of sausage in almost every bite)
  • Liquid
    • 4 c chicken stock (I actually use a sodium free bullion and water and it turns out pretty well)
    • 3 c water
  • 1 1/2 c rice
(After blooming) Add everything but the rice to your slow cooker and cook for 5-7 hours on High or 9-11 hours on Low.  Add your rice and cook on high for 1/2 hour.  You may wish to add more seasonings (I like hot sauce on mine).  Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Forgiving Sewing Projects: Duvet Cover

I've been meaning to make a new cover for my feather comforter for some time now.  Since the cover is fairly large, and since it will be filled with something fluffy, this is a project that is very forgiving of stitching (and even cutting) that isn't straight.

We have a queen sized bed and I wanted to make some matching pillowcases and throw pillows, so I bought a king flat sheet and a coordinating king sheet set to use for fabric (bought after the new year, when linens are on sale, this cost me less than $25).  I think this was plenty for us but if you have a king bed you might need to buy another flat sheet or some fabric.
Before you ever get started, make sure to pre-wash and dry your fabric so that it has already shrunk as much as it is going to.  Iron the fabric so that you make accurate measurements and cuts.

To make the duvet cover, you are really just sewing large rectangle that has an opening in one end.  Measure your comforter width and length and measure, mark, and cut your two flat sheets so that you allow for a seam allowance and, if you choose to do this part, the french seam/sham flange edge.  I generally do a 1/2" seam allowance and I did about a 1" flange so I added 3" to my comforter dimensions.  I would not recommend making the duvet cover oversized for the comforter because I think you tend to get more lumping that way.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Behold the Power of the White Mat

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Easy/Fast: Butternut Squash and Blue Cheese Pasta

This is one of our favorite weeknight meals.  It makes a fairly large pot of food (I think we get 8 pretty generous portions out of it - this will depend on how much squash you use) and it freezes beautifully.  It takes about 30 - 45 minutes from start to finish, depending on how fast you can cut up produce (if you don't buy pre-cut) and how mushy you like the squash cooked.

It is based off a recipe from Better Homes and Gardens but I have made a few substitutions to make it less hoity-toity  (Who can find pappardelle in their typical grocery??  And why Marsala instead of whatever dry red wine you have on had?  Pine nuts?? BHG, do you know how much pine nuts cost?? This is really uncharacteristically haughty for them.) and to change the flavor profile slightly (I like marjoram more than sage but I think dill, thyme, savory, rosemary, and pretty much anything else would work great too. 


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