STEM Tuesday

STEM Tuesday — Pets — Writing Tips & Resources

Using Super Senses

Most humans rely on their eyes to learn about the world; sight is our dominant sense. But as you learned last week, life is far different for our furry friends. They don’t see nearly as well as we do.

So how do dogs and cats make up for their less-than-stellar vision? They use other, supersensitive senses like smell. Did you know dogs have 40 times the number of scent cells humans do? And both dogs and cats use whiskers to make sense of their surroundings. I learned these fascinating facts from this month’s books about our beloved pets. And comparing and contrasting our senses led me to think about how authors use our senses — and sensory details — when writing.

Everything Dogs Dog Science Unleashed









Souping Up Sensory Detail

Writers have a superpower. They can magically teleport readers into a book. A good book sucks the reader into the action. It’s like being in a favorite movie or video game. How do writers perform that trick?  Sensory details.

Since humans rely on vision, our natural inclination as writers is to provide lots of details related to what we see. For example, we might write, “A pink starfish clung to the gray rock.” Pink and gray are both visual details.

Yet to truly capture a setting, we must act more like dogs and cats and employ our other senses too. What does the starfish’s ocean home smell like? If you could touch the starfish, would its skin feel lumpy or smooth or rough? What does the sea smell or taste like? Is it salty?

To help you make the shift to your other four senses when writing, try this exercise.

  1. Highlight sensory details in your work. First, pick a paragraph. Then grab a pack of highlighters or colored pens. Highlight any details you included about sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes. Use a different color for each sense. Do you notice a pattern? Is your writing packed with visual description? Are there senses you’ve left out entirely?
  2. Close your eyes. Imagine yourself in your setting or sitting next to your character, and think about what you might hear, smell, taste, and feel. Real writer tip: If you’re writing about a place you’ve never visited, find a video online and listen. Or, take a trip to a local museum, zoo, or aquarium to suss out smells, sounds, and even textures if you can find touch tanks or petting programs.
  3. Revise. Go back to your paragraph and add sensory details that help give your reader a fuller picture of the world you’re writing about.

This is a technique I use each and every time I revise. I hope it helps you too!


Kirsten W. Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She’s the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, February 2020), CECILIA PAYNE: MAKING OF A STAR (SCIENTIST), illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2021), along with 25 other nonfiction books for kids. Find her at or on Twitter/Instagram @KirstenWLarson.


This month, the Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files provides links to learn more about pet senses and resources for fine-tuning your sense of smell and touch.

  • Learn more about dogs and their senses with the Dogs! A Science Tale app from the California Science Center.
  • Watch this video (and use the accompanying lesson) from Ted Ed to find out how dogs sniff and process smell.
  • Want to see what your dog sees? Check out this Dog Vision app.
  • Ready to work on your sense of smell? I can’t guarantee you’ll be able to pick out the individual scents in a pile of stinky trash (dogs can do this!), but you can train yourself to notice smells in your world. Try this Mystery Smells experiment from KidsHealth to help you tune in to smells all around.
  • What’s it feel like? Did you know your skin is the biggest sensory organ in your whole body? Learn to tune into your sense of touch with these fun activities from the University of Washington.

STEM Tuesday– Pets — In the Classroom

We all love our pets, from the biggest dogs to the tiniest hamsters. They inspire and amaze us with their crazy antics and incredible abilities. In the classroom, students can delve into their interest in pets and other animals with high-interest activities that explore the science of how and why our pets behave the way they do. In this activity, students will conduct an experiment to see if dogs can tell the difference between colors.

Can Dogs See Color?
To start, learn as a class about how dogs see by reading through Inside of a Dog, Young Readers Edition: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz and Dog Science Unleashed by Jodi Wheeler-Toppen.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgInside of a Dog, Young Readers Edition: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz, illustrated by Sean Vidal Edgerton
This young readers’ edition of the popular adult nonfiction book gives children a glimpse into understanding a dog’s behavior. A great book for budding animal cognition scientists and dog trainers.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgDog Science Unleashed by Jodi Wheeler-Toppen
This title offers readers fun science-based activities and experiments to do with their pets based on how the animals think, move, drink, and more.



To introduce this activity, explain to students how in animals, including humans, the eye and brain work together to translate light into color. Light receptors in the eye send messages to the brain. The brain processes this information and tells us the color we see. In the human eye, there are three types of color receptors called cone cells. Cone cells detect red, blue, and greenish yellow. Together, these cone cells allow us to see the full spectrum of colors.

What about dogs? What colors, if any, can they see? Unlike humans, dogs have only two types of cone cells which detect greenish blue and yellow. Explain to students that they will perform an experiment to test a dog’s ability to see color.

• Construction paper in different colors – red, green, and blue
• Two glass jars or cups of the same size
• Tape
• Dog treats

Because most schools do not allow pets in class, explain to students that they will be conducting fieldwork at home and then analyzing their results as a class. You may assign students to small groups so that every group has a dog for fieldwork. Explain to students the procedures that they will follow at home to conduct their fieldwork.

Fieldwork Steps
1. To begin, students will cover each jar with one color of construction paper.

2. With the dog out of the room, place the blue and red jars on the floor. Bring the dog into the room and tell him to come. When the dog comes to the blue jar, give him a treat. If he goes to the red jar, do not give him a treat. Repeat the process several times and switch the position of the jars. Continue to give the dog a treat every time he chooses the blue jar over the red jar.

3. Take the dog out of the room. Add the green jar to the red and blue jars. Call the dog into the room and tell him to come. Which jar did the dog choose? Continue to give him treats for choosing the blue jar. Repeat 10 times, moving the positions of the jars each time. How many times did the dog choose the blue jar? Record the results.

Back in the Classroom
Have students organize the results of their fieldwork. They can create graphs, charts, or other visual displays of their data. Have each group present their data and discuss their results.

To encourage classroom discussion, have students discuss the following questions:
1. Based on the data, do you think dogs can see color? Which color(s)? How do your results support your answer?
2. Did the breed of dog affect the results? Why or why not?
3. Did any other factors affect your fieldwork and results? How?
4. What other experiment could you design to test if dogs can see color?

Need more ideas for teaching middle-school students about pets and other animals? Check out these resources:

Carla Mooney loves to explore the world around us and discover the details about how it works. An award-winning author of numerous nonfiction science books for kids and teens, she hopes to spark a healthy curiosity and love of science in today’s young people. Find her at

STEM Tuesday — Pets! — Book List



Pretty soon we will be entering the “dog days” of summer, so why not let our STEM Tuesday blog reflect our love of dogs and other pets this month?

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Dog Science Unleashed and Cat Science Unleashed by Jodi Wheeler-Toppen

These two titles offer readers fun science-based activities and experiments to do with their pets based on how the animals think, move, drink, and more.



Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Mercy: The Incredible Story of Henry Bergh by Nancy Furstinger, illustrated by Vincent Desjardin

This biography about the founder of the ASPCA demonstrates how one person can make a difference in the world. His work led to the acceptance of the protection of animals.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Support Independent Bookstores - Visit How to Speak Cat and How to Speak Dog by Aline Newman and Gary Weitzman, DVM

Why do cats purr? Why do dogs wag their tails? These two titles will help readers understand what their cats or dogs are trying to communicate with their body language and behavior.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Dog Days of History: The Incredible Story of Our Best Friends by Sarah Albee

Delve into the history of our lives with our beloved canines with this book filled with interesting tidbits of historical pet facts.



Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgEverything Dogs: All the Canine Facts, Photos, and Fun You Can Get Your Paws On!  by Becky Bains

Examine everything about dogs in this great resource book. Readers will explore breeds, history, and more to discover what makes dogs our “best friends.”


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (and Their Noses) Save the World by Nancy Castaldo

Why and how do dogs use their noses to help us in so many ways? Delve into the science and the extraordinary tales of these super sniffing canines.



Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Puppy Training for Kids: Teaching Children the Responsibilities and Joys of Puppy Care, Training, and Companionship by Colleen Pelar and Amber Johnson

This is a great book for families with a new puppy. Get training tips, advice, and more in this title for young dog owners.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Poop Detectives: Sniffer Dogs in the Field by Ginger Wadsworth

Discover dogs helping scientists in the field in this well-researched book about conservation canines.



Support Independent Bookstores - Visit National Geographic Kids 125 True Stories of Amazing Pets: Inspiring Tales of Animal Friendship and Four-legged Heroes, Plus Crazy Animal Antics by Nat Geo

A perfect book of heart-warming and hilarious stories for the animal-loving reader who may or may not have their own pet. These stories will inspire and entertain.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Inside of a Dog, Young Readers Edition: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz, illustrated by Sean Vidal Edgerton  

This young readers edition of the popular adult nonfiction book gives children a glimpse into understanding a dog’s behavior. A great book for budding animal cognition scientists and dog trainers.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Finding Gobi: Young Reader’s Edition: The True Story of One Little Dog’s Big Journey by Dion Leonard and Aaron Rosenberg

An inspiring and heartfelt look at one dog’s rescue. This edition brings this fantastic story of friendship to younger readers, who will appreciate the challenges of an 80-mile race and the struggle to give Gobi a real home.


STEM Tuesday book lists prepared by

Nancy Castaldo has written books about our planet for over 20 years including, THE STORY OF SEEDS: From Mendel’s Garden to Your Plate, and How There’s More of Less To Eat Around The World, which earned the Green Earth Book Award, Junior Library Guild Selection, and other honors. Nancy’s research has taken her all over the world from the Galapagos to Russia.  She strives to inform, inspire, and empower her readers. Nancy also serves as the Regional Advisor of the Eastern NY SCBWI region. Her 2018 multi-starred title is BACK FROM THE BRINK: Saving Animals from Extinction. Visit her at  

And she is the proud mom of a rescued Bichon named Boo Radley. 

Patricia Newman writes middle-grade nonfiction that empowers young readers to act on behalf of the environment and their communities. A Sibert Honoree for Sea Otter Heroes, Newman has also received an NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book Award for Eavesdropping on Elephants, and a Green Earth Book Award for Plastic, Ahoy! Her books have also received starred reviews, been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections, and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. During author visits, she demonstrates how young readers can use writing to be the voice of change. Visit her at