Common Core & NGSS

STEM Tuesday– Deep Space and Beyond– Interview with Author Alexandra Siy

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Alexandra Siy, author of this month’s featured deep space book, Voyager’s Greatest Hits: The Epic Trek to Interstellar Space. The book is a “soundtrack” that takes readers on an epic journey into interstellar space thanks to NASA’s Voyager program and its twin robotic space probes.

The author’s enthusiasm for Voyager’s accomplishments shines through her words: “Planets dance around the Sun. Moons and rings dance around the planets. And the Voyagers danced around them all, taking pictures, collecting data, and transforming how humans see and understand the solar system.”  Voyager’s Greatest Hits received a starred review from School Library Journal, calling it “An engaging and captivating STEM title.” The book was also chosen for NSTA’s Best STEM Books 2018.

Alexandra Siy is a science writer and photographer for kids who thinks that science is fun, artsy, and cool. She’s written many books that combine science and art through imagery that reveals both microscopic and far away worlds.  She also visits schools and libraries nationwide, sharing her passion for science, books, and photography.

Mary Kay Carson: What inspired you to write Voyager’s Greatest Hits?

Alexandra Siy: Back in 2005, I was following the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity for my book CARS ON MARS. One day, while trolling the NASA website I read about a record album flying through space. What?!

Launched back in 1977 on the Voyager Planetary Mission, the “Golden Record” instantly captured my imagination. What was on it? How do you play it? Why was it made? Did scientists really think there are aliens out there who might someday find it? Where is it right now? One question lead to another—and suddenly I was researching the heliosphere, plasma waves, gravity assist, the interstellar medium, and termination shock. At that point, the Voyagers were far beyond the outer planets, but they were still on a mission. Now called the Voyager Interstellar Mission, the twin spacecraft were speeding toward interstellar space, and I wanted to hop onboard. But the only way to go was to write a book.

Voyager’s Greatest Hits was inspired by the Golden Record. It was fun weaving the titles of pop musical recordings from the past forty years into the narrative’s chapter titles and subtitles. A book is the voice of the person writing it, and Voyager’s Greatest Hits became my personal journey to the cosmos. “I’ve been flying with the Voyagers ever since,” I wrote in my author’s note. “And now, so are you.”

MKC: Could you share a favorite research moment or finding?

Alexandra: Although I interviewed several scientists while researching Voyager’s Greatest Hits, my favorite moment was not my interview. It occurred on December 3, 2013 (which was my birthday). I discovered the interview online over a year later. Voyager Project Scientist, Ed Stone, who I’d come to know only through research, was on the Colbert Report talking about “humankind’s greatest—and certainly most extensive—journey of exploration.” When Stephen Colbert floated across the stage in a spacesuit and presented Ed with NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal, Ed was genuinely surprised. His passion for science, exploration, and discovery was as engaging as his great big smile. Check it out the Colbert interview and the fun award presentation.

MKC: Why do you write STEM books?

Alexandra: I have a lot of questions. I want to know things. I majored in biology in college because I literally wanted to know what life is—the reason for it, and how and why it exists. This question of life, which is the ultimate existential question, bothered me a lot. When I realized I would not be finding the answer in upper level bio courses, I signed up for classes in Shakespeare and Writing Poetry. I minored in writing and eventually discovered that nonfiction writing is “thinking on the page,” as Philip Lopate described it in his 2013 title, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. When I write, I come to understand.

Writing STEM books is a holistic approach to understanding. I like to say I write STEAM books because I incorporate art into all of my titles. Primary source scientific imagery is also artistic expression, and I love fusing science and art in books for young readers.

MKC: Any book recommendations for fans of Voyager’s Greatest Hits?

Alexandra: A Wrinkle in Time, the novel by Madeleine L’Engle. In her 1963 Newberry Medal acceptance speech L’Engle concluded: “A book too, can be a star, ‘explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,’ a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” Mary Kay Carson’s outstanding Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt. And for the 2019, 50th Anniversary of the first lunar landing check out Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon by Catherine Thimmesh.

Win a FREE copy of Voyager’s Greatest Hits!

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Your host this week is Mary Kay Carson, fellow space geek and author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson

 

STEM Tuesday — Deep Space and Beyond — Writing Craft & Resources

Interesting Intros

If you are like me, by the time you’ve read the first page or two, you’ve already decided if you’ll finish a book. The beginning, the intro, the hook, those are crucial to a reading experience.

blank page, book, textbook, university, wisdom, writingSo crucial, in fact, that when a nonfiction author writes a book proposal (an overview, outline, comparable books, audience information, author platform, etc.) the writing sample that accompanies the proposal almost always includes the introduction. Editors don’t ask to see the chapter that will require the utmost skill in handling technical information – in the space books featured this month that could include trajectories, subsystems, eight letter acronyms, and numbers too large for the human brain to grasp. They don’t ask to see the conclusion chapter – the one that is likely to require the greatest artistic ability to tie up the loose ends of in-depth concepts, inspire the reader, and launch them into further inquiry. No, editors want to see the introduction. The one that requires both art and craft, wound together skillfully enough to hook a young reader.

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So, how do successful writers begin? Let’s take a look at the choices made by Mary Kay Carson, Elizabeth Rusch, and Catherine Thimmesh in Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt, Impact: Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World, and Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon.

Setting the Mood

The first spread of Mission to Pluto is filled with a photo, a room packed with adults waving American flags and cheering. Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe text is all about setting the scene. Author Mary Kay Carson could have chosen just about any detail:

  • the phones clicking pictures
  • the type of stick the flags were attached to
  • the hair styles of the individuals

But instead she picked details that accentuated her subject matter:

  • a nine-sided mission patch
  • a robotic spacecraft
  • a dwarf planet

She selected characters such as Bill Nye, the Science Guy, whose inclusion emphasized the magnitude of the occasion. And, she chose a quote (“Now we’re finally going to find out what really…”) that focused a spotlight on the mood in the room – a mood of anticipation. Thanks to the author’s skill, the text oozes that mood and lures me into flipping that page.

Building Anticipation

When you open Impact, you’ll be gazing deep into the starry sky. Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgLike Carson, Rusch puts us right into a scene. From the text, we get concrete information like the date and location (a Russian city) but we get much more. People are “bundled up tightly;” they “crunched their way through the snow.” When I read “At 9:20 a.m.” – not “That morning” or “Sometime that day” – my readering radar goes off because that specificity is a clue that something is about to happen.

In the next bit, the words: “a strange bright point” followed by mysterious smoky trails tell us just enough to imply impending action. Not yet willing to give away the action, Rusch then artfully turns our attention to a class of fourth graders. Who’s the intended audience of this book? Fourth graders. Brilliant. Only then, when the scene is set, the anticipation built, and the relatable characters introduced, only then does the author unleash the action.  “Duck and cover!” Eager to know what happens to these kids, we flip the page.

Using the Unexpected

Team Moon begins with a full-page, labeled image of the flight path of Apollo 11. Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgBecause the path is not nearly as straight forward as I had anticipated, my finger immediately starts tracing the white and then the blue lines and purple arrows. That image is coupled with a simple intro “The Dream . . . ” and a teaser “And the Challenge . . .” which has me charging forward to learn more.

The next page is not at all what I had expected, either. There is no traditional introductory sentence, no watered down overview of the lesson we are about to receive, no generalizations what-so-ever. Instead there is an unexpected photograph (black and white, a crowd of men huddled around a tv set), lots of specific verbs (dominate, transmit, clicked), and language that gushes with enthusiasm (flat-out miracle, wonder of wonders, flush with anticipation).

Applying These Lessons

Close reading of these introductions has me reflecting on my own writing. Could I make use of more specific verbs? How can I build the anticipation? Which of the many characters in a science story will be the best hook for my target audience? I’m grateful for mentor texts such as these.

By Heather L. Montgomery

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. She reads and writes while high in a tree, standing in a stream, or perched on a mountaintop boulder. www.HeatherLMontgomery.com


 

O.O.L.F.

The Out Of Left Field files this month focus on nonfiction kidlit resources. Readers and teachers, if you have any interesting resources to share, please leave them in a comment below.

https://www.nonfictionminute.org/ The Nonfiction minute offers a searchable archive of 400-word essays written and read by nonfiction kidlit authors. Each is accompanied by lesson suggestions.

https://www.melissa-stewart.com/sciclubhouse/teachhome/teach_home.html Nonfiction author Melissa Stewart offers fabulous nonfiction reading resources, nonfiction writing resources, revision timelines and more. Don’t miss her blog!

https://www.geekwrapped.com/science-books-for-kids 100 great science books for kids!

STEM Tuesday — Deep Space and Beyond — In the Classroom

Let’s launch into nonfiction literacy with this month’s theme, Deep Space and Beyond!

Space is the star of the show this month. From asteroids to zero gravity, there are human interest and general STEM themes interwoven with this theme.  Have a blast as you explore the Solar System and beyond!

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Try a Trio.

Emphasize the human heart of science as you compare and contrast the stories in a trio of books: Team Moon (Catherine Thimmesh), Mission to Pluto (Mary Kay Carson), and Voyager’s Greatest Hits (Alexandra Siy).  Focus on the motivations, challenges, worries, and risks involved in reaching for big, ambitious goals that advance scientific and technological frontiers.  Students can consider which missions they find most interesting; which one they think they would most like to have been involved in; and where else they think humanity should explore. They might also write about what they see as the advantages and disadvantages of  human explorations compared to robotic ones.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org Make an Impact.

Elizabeth Rusch’s IMPACT! Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World focuses on professional scientists’ efforts to understand asteroids and their, er, impacts, both past and potential, on Earth. Then Rusch invites readers to get involved in citizen, or amateur, asteroid science. (After reading this book, who wouldn’t want to join the fun?) Page 64 offers resources to help engage your group, or just one motivated kid, in efforts to track asteroids, discover one, or even save the world from an asteroid! Rusch provides tips for meteorite collecting, but it might be easier to collect tiny micrometeorites. Their incredibly long adventures through space can end on rooftops and in downspout debris. They’re ready for pick-up by the well-informed, slightly lucky, prepared amateur with a magnet. Check out Popular Science’s DIY article for details. (Be sure to get all the appropriate permissions and scout only in safe areas when collecting!)

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org Practice Your Scales.

Readers zipping through Dr. E’s Super Stellar Solar System  (Bethany Ehlmann with STEM Tuesday’s Jennifer Swanson) might appreciate the mind-boggling size of the solar system after they make and revise solar system models to various scales. Get started with a scale and relevant data for a football field-sized model, found on page 18. Before heading out to the gridiron, however, help students map out the model.

Begin by sketching the football field on cm-grid graph paper and locating the planets’ orbits on it. (Each cm represents one foot on the field and 5 million miles in real space.) At this scale, students will find the field is too small for all orbits; students will need to adjust the scale so all planets can fit. New map in hand, head outside. Students can position themselves at the scaled planetary distances from the Sun.

Reading on, as students find that the solar system extends farther than the planetary orbits, they can track distance data for all Solar System features mentioned in the book. At the scale students used before, where in the community beyond the field would these features have to be placed?

For more depth, consider the scale of the objects and other models.

  • Is the model of the Sun (an orange) the right size for this scale?
  • If not, what would be?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of various 3D and illustrated visual models of the solar system that students have encountered?

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org Explore Metaphors with Black Holes.

Metaphors and imagery help scientists flesh out ideas for themselves. Piggy-backing new ideas onto ones we already grasp is also important in science communication, especially when it comes to fascinating but abstract, challenging concepts related to black holes.

Keep a class log of the metaphors, analogies, and other comparisons used by scientists and the authors—including Sara Latta, author of Black Holes: the Weird Science of the Most Mysterious Objects in the Universe and me, author of A Black Hole is NOT a Hole. You’ll find some, for example, on page 35 of Black Holes, where Latta quotes Neil deGrasse Tyson describing galactic (and black hole) cannibalism : “…the big galaxies get bigger; the little ones get eaten”. By contrast my book begins by challenging  such anthropomorphism (“monstermorphism”?); soon, starting on page 8, the text compares a black hole to a whirlpool.

  • What other examples can readers find of scientists or writers using metaphorical language to describe black holes and related ideas?
  • In what ways does each metaphor work as a model and in what ways does it break down? What metaphors do students come across in other science contexts?
  • Based on their own world experience, what metaphors can students develop for the science concepts they are learning?

 

Make It Your Mission. Just as it took 400,000 people—Team Moon–to launch humanity to the moon, it takes a big Team STEM Tuesday to launch kids into getting the most of their STEM and STEM reading experiences. We would love to hear from you.

  • What books on this month’s list do you want to bring to your young readers?
  • Which of this month’s suggestions intrigue you most?
  • What other ideas, thoughts, and questions around using space books with your young learners do you have?

 


portrait of author Carolyn Cinami DeCristofanoSTEM author Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano writes books for kids about space and other topics. Her lively author programs bring engaging science and writing experiences to readers.  As co-founder of Blue Heron STEM Education, she provides teacher professional development and creates curriculum resources for classrooms and other contexts.