STEM Tuesday

STEM Tuesday — Let’s Explore Botany!– Interview with Author Sally Walker

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 Sally Walker, author of this month’s featured botany book, CHAMPION: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree. Among its favorable reviews is one from Kirkus, calling it, “A compelling, inspiring true story of a species rescued from extinction through decades of determined innovation.” 



Mary Kay Carson: Why did you write Champion?

Sally Walker: I’ve known part of the American Chestnut tree’s story since I was in high school. My biology teacher assigned a leaf collection project. We could only include trees native to New Jersey, where I lived. Any tree was okay, with the exception of the American Chestnut tree, because, he said, it was extinct. My father, however, knew that wasn’t true. It turned out that American Chestnut tree was my dad’s favorite type of tree.  And he knew they were not extinct: Their roots still survived in New Jersey forests (and in other states) and gave rise to new sprouts. These saplings grew for 10 or so years, and then succumbed to the chestnut blight. Even so, the roots continued to send up more sprouts. My dad and I visited a forest not too far from our home. A half-hour trek into the woods, and we found a chestnut sapling. I was thrilled to be able to add one of its leaves to my leaf collection project.

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good mystery, and the story of the American Chestnut tree is like a Russian Matryoshka doll: mystery within mystery within mystery. I channeled my inner Nancy Drew and hoped readers would join me as I hunted for clues. Clues that would explain why American Chestnut trees died, and clues that would lead to a solution that would restore the trees to health.  I wrote the story for people, young and old, who, like me, enjoy spending time outdoors. Who like wondering about the natural world. And who listen to the songs that trees sing.

Sally M. Walker has brought science to life in more than 20 books for young readers, including Secrets of a Civil War Submarine and Blizzard of Glass. Her research has seen her corresponding with experts in archaeology, geology, forensic anthropology, and genealogy, interviewing scientists, and touring the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina, where she saw the H.L. Hunley and her artifacts. Walker lives in DeKalb, Illinois.

MKC: Could you share a memorable moment—or two—from your research for Champion?

Sally: My most thrilling chestnut experience occurred while I was visiting England. Castanea sativa, the European Chestnut, thrives there. The massive trunks of several-hundred-year-old chestnut trees are unbelievable. Seeing them—and hugging one—let me imagine how very majestic the American Chestnut trees growing in our forests had been before the blight killed them.

When I first walked into the American Chestnut Foundation’s orchards, in Virginia, I was astounded to see many hundreds of young chestnut trees. Healthy, lush with leaves. A flash of blue caught my eye—an indigo bunting landed in one of the larger trees.  I felt as though I’d entered a magic kingdom.  AND THEN I LEARNED HORRIBLE NEWS!  The team I was working with would be inoculating the young trees with the fungus that gives American Chestnut trees the blight. Some of the trees we inoculated would have some resistance to the blight, but most of them would die. But I did my job, knowing that the young trees that lived would become parent trees for new blight-resistant generations.

MKC: Did you set out to write a STEM book? 

Sally: I don’t choose to write STEM books. I write about what interests me. Finding fossils and cool rocks. Watching insects, animals, and fish. Understanding how a submarine rises and sinks. When I am gardening, using a stick and a small rock to help me shift a larger rock to a new place. I guess most people would say this is science—the “S” in STEM. But for me it’s simply the way I was raised. My parents encouraged me to ask question, exploring the world to find answers, and experiment. To use my mind and imagination.

I have a college degree in geology and archaeology, but that was from before the term STEM was invented.  I studied those areas because they are incredibly fascinating and fun, full of puzzles and mysteries. What I love about STEM is that it shows kids that science, technology, engineering, and math are interrelated. As they learn, students can draw connections among the fields and see how each part affects the other, often in a way that relates directly to some aspect of her or his life. STEM creates a network.

MKC:  Any recommendations for readers who enjoyed Champion

Sally: Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet by Nikki Tate and Treecology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Trees and Forests by Monica Russo are nonfiction, while End of the Wild by Nicole Helget and Wishtree by Katherine Applegate are fiction.

Win a FREE copy of CHAMPION: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree!

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 fellow tree freak Mary Kay Carson, author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson


STEM Tuesday — Let’s Explore Botany!– Writing Craft and Resources



When I first applied and joined up with the STEM Tuesday team, there was one general subject I secretly wanted to avoid at all cost. A subject which is one of my weakest scientific areas. Botany.

It’s not that I am a complete putz when it comes to botanicals. I cultivate a vegetable garden every year. I enjoy both the gardening process and reaping the benefits of the garden’s production. My paternal grandfather taught us grandkids how to plant petunias in my mother’s flowerbeds not long after we were out of diapers. My maternal grandfather kept a big, spacious garden where he grew tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, horseradish, and all things which could be made into spicy canned deliciousness.

I must confess, however, when it comes to the study of plants, I fall short. I can spend hours studying an animal cell or bacteria or a virus. A plant cell? Not so much. I can make a pretty solid salsa out of the tomatoes, peppers, and onions from my garden; yet can tell you very little about the seed anatomy, the root system, the physiology, or the leaf structure of that tomato plant.

With my relative ignorance out in the open, what can I offer to the STEM Tuesday Botany Craft & Resource game this month?

I can ask a simple question that lies at the core of an inquiring STEM mind:

How can I learn more about _______?  (Which, in this case, is botany.)

I can suggest doing what STEM thinkers have done for centuries and go to work.

  • Observe. “Hey, that thing is pretty awesome.” 
  • Ask why. “Why is that thing as awesome as it is?”
  • Research. “I need to find out what makes that thing awesome.”
  • Go where your interests take you. “This thing is like that thing and it’s also awesome.”
  • Dig deep into those directions that interest you. “Whoa! This thing and that thing are both are part of something bigger.”
  • Be open and willing to learn. 
  • Be willing to do the work to learn.

I cleaned the remaining vegetables off all the plants in my garden this past weekend in front of an early frost and snow shower. The plants were pulled and thrown into the compost pile and the last containers of homemade salsa and pasta sauce were canned and now sit in the pantry. Gardening season 2018 has come to an end. But the learning is just beginning for the gardener. Time to hit the STEM Tuesday Botany book list and see where my plant learning journey takes me over the winter.

As my wife, who teaches first grade, often reminds her rock-headed husband, we are never too old to learn something new.

Finally, never forget that life viewed through the lens of an inquiring STEM mind is a much richer life.

Keep asking questions!

Keep learning!

STEM rocks!

Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded, equal opportunity sports enthusiasts, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports/training related topics and writer stuff at www.mikehaysbooks.comTwo of his essays will be included in the Putting the Science in Fiction collection from Writer’s Digest Books release later this month. He can be found roaming around the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64.


The O.O.L.F Files

The Out Of Left Field files this month focuses on the fun side of botany in an attempt to make up for my shortcomings on the subject as outlined in the above post. And if you find yourself hungry at the end of chasing the links, the final link can easily take care of your appetite, one way or the other.





STEM Tuesday — Let’s Explore Botany!– In the Classroom

STEM TUESDAY from the mixed up files

STEM TUESDAY: Let’s Explore Botany – In the Classroom

Note to all: This STEM Tuesday In the Classroom, we welcome Jodi Wheeler-Toppen as our newest blogger. As her “In the Classroom” collaborator, I think you’ll just love what Jodi has to offer. Author of STEM books for kids and educational books for teachers, this dynamo has lots to share. Welcome, Jodi!

                                                                     –Carolyn DeCristofano

Botanical Bellringers

I took a botany course in college. I planned to get it out of the way so I could move on to the more interesting parts of getting a biology major. Instead, I had an excellent professor who threw open the treasure chest of plant knowledge for me (and, incidentally, got me started on science writing). A maxim among children’s writers is “plant books don’t sell.” I want to change this to “Plant books don’t sell themselves.” With the right introduction, kids can be drawn into reading a book with cover-full of plants.

The books on this month’s list aren’t as likely to be used as a whole-class read, so I propose having them in the classroom library and using bellringers (warm-up questions/ do-nows/ or whatever you like to call the questions that teachers have students do as they enter the classroom) to engage students in the topics. After the bellringer, you can show students the book and encourage them to take a look at it later.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgBotanicum: This is a wonderful book for browsing and might draw artsy students into the topic. It illustrates the breadth of the plant world. This bellringer helps students think about the domestication of crops.

Display plants 1-5 on page 66. Ask: Make a prediction. How might plants 1 and 2 be related? How about plants 3, 4, and 5?

When you are ready to discuss the bellringer, display the first two paragraphs of text on the page, which describe the wild plant that was domesticated to become corn and the two plants that were crossed to create the wheat we eat today.

It's a Fungus Among Us: The Good, the Bad & the Downright ScaryIt’s a Fungus Among Us: Students will pick this one up because of the engaging photographs. It also has “test it out” experiments. I particularly liked one on p. 15 that gave students ideas for gathering data on whether lichen could serve as a compass. This bellringer works on visual literacy and plant/ fungi interactions.

Display the text and diagram for “Plant Partners” on p. 26. Ask: This diagram and text work together to give you information. What do you learn from the words that you don’t get from the picture? What information is in the picture that you don’t get from the words?

When you are ready to discuss, point out to students that pictures and text often have different information, and it is valuable in science to spend time with each. Never just skip over the diagrams! (Students often ignore diagrams and charts in their science books, and visual literacy is as important as text literacy in academic reading.)

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe Story of Seeds: This is a book that students are less likely to pick up on their own, but it covers an important topic and could become an area of interest if students are exposed to the ideas. For this bellringer, collect some photos of interesting heritage vegetables. Seed Savers is a great source for these. You might consider Dragon Carrots, Old Timey Blue Collards, Watermelon Radish, and Calypso Beans.

Display the images. Ask: Try to identify each of these vegetables. Have you ever eaten anything similar?

When you are ready to discuss, talk about the value of heritage seeds. It’s not just fun to have different foods to eat, but it also helps us have a variety of genes to help breed plants for new environmental challenges. Encourage them to read The Story of Seeds to find out more.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgChampion: I recommend this one especially for students who live in the area where chestnut trees used to grow. Many students don’t know that plants can catch diseases, and this book can bring that idea home.

Display this photo. (It is also in the book.) Ask: Would you like to have a tree this big in the school yard? Why or why not? Where do you think this tree lives?

When you are ready to discuss, explain that the picture is of the American Chestnut. Ask students for their guesses of where it lives. Tell them you have a map of the range of the Chestnut tree and display the map on p. 16 (A similar map can be found here.) Have them find where you live on the map and imagine that 100 years ago, they could have gone outside and seen one of these trees. Point them to the book to find out about the disease that killed this tree, where survivors still exist, and the hunt for a way to bring the American chestnut back.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgBonus–Poison: You won’t have any trouble getting students to pick this one up to browse. It covers a wide variety of science (and history) topics. I recommend it particularly for physical science/chemistry, however, as a fun take on not-so-fun elements.

Display the “Tox Box” for Lead (p. 23), Radium (p. 126), Mercury (p. 15), or Arsenic (p. 13). Ask: Before the scientists could use chemistry to figure out if someone had been poisoned, people were often thought to have died of disease instead of poison. Read this description and propose some diseases or conditions that people might have gotten confused with this poison.

When you are ready to discuss, don’t tell them if they are right or wrong. Insist that they read the book to find out! And next time students ask when they are “ever going to use this stuff,” remind them that the ability to use chemistry to detect poisons is the reason that poisoning has fallen out of favor!

Do you have other bellringers you like to use when teaching plants? Tell us about them in the comments!

Jodi Wheeler-Toppen is a former science teacher and the author of the Once Upon A Science Book series (NSTA Press) on integrating science and reading instruction.  She also writes for children, with her most recent book being Dog Science Unleashed: Fun Activities to do with Your Canine Companion. She loves plants but seems to have a brown thumb.