STEM Tuesday — Pets — Interview with Author Jodi Wheeler-Toppen

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 Jodi Wheeler-Toppen about her just-released book CAT SCIENCE UNLEASHED: Fun Activities to Do with Your Feline Friends. School Library Journal says: “This book will be a delight to children who love cats and want to learn more about them using hands-on experiments.”

Mary Kay Carson: Tell us a bit about Cat Science Unleashed.

Jodi Wheeler-Toppen: Cat Science Unleashed is a book of science-based activities to do with your cat. The activities are fun–make your cat a toy that also tests her sniff-skills, find out how well your cat knows her territory, test her hearing and her night-vision, for example. They’ll show you cool things about your cat’s anatomy, physiology, psychology, etc. A lot of the activities also help you learn about the peculiarities of your special kitty–there’s a personality test, for example, where you can see how your cat compares to thousands of cats from around the world.

MKC: Developing cat-based activities must have been challenging!

Jodi: I wrote this book as a pairing to go with Dog Science Unleashed, which I also wrote. And I can tell you, the cat book was more of a challenge! For the dog book, my friends would drop their dogs at my house for the day and I would try activities with them (because I wanted to see how they worked with a variety of pups). But cats are so attached to their territories–it would terrify most cats to be dropped off at a strange house with a stranger. So I had to go to them and coax them out from under the bed or on top of the refrigerator or whatnot and try to engage them in my activities. It often worked best if I got the cat’s favorite person to try the activities while I watched.

Jodi Wheeler-Toppen is a former high school science teacher, with a Ph.D. in science education. She’s passionate about presenting science as exciting, suspenseful, and understandable. The author of more than a dozen science books for children and teachers, she also has a series on teaching strategies and activities from the National Science Teachers Association Press. Visit her at

I got in trouble with one of my friends. I tested her three kittens for their paw preference by placing butter in a jar and watching how they got it out. She says that now, every morning when she makes toast, one-two-three little faces pop up over the countertop demanding butter! Sometimes an experiment would go great with one cat and then I’d never get it to work again. There was this fun one where I cut out detailed silhouettes of an angry cat and a peaceful cat and taped them to the wall. One pair of kitties gave great responses, arching their backs at the angry cat and rubbing against the peaceful one. But then I could never get another cat to respond, so I didn’t put it in the book.

MKC: How would you describe the approach you took to writing this book?

Jodi: I tried to work backwards from the science to the activities. So I looked for science ideas that were super cool or seemed important if you were going to understand your kitty. Then I thought, what is the craziest way we could look at this? What could you do with your cat that would be really fun or funny or would make Princess Fluffy super happy? I want it to be fun, for kids and their cats. I also want people to come away amazed at their purrfect pets!

MKC: Why do you choose to write STEM books?

Jodi: I was a high school science teacher and I am still very involved in STEM education through writing and staff development. Life circumstances made it difficult for me to stay in the classroom, so writing is a way I can still teach. Plus, it’s so much fun to take a topic and think about what’s really cool, what would people really get a kick out of about this, and focus there. So much more fun than having to always stick to the education standards!


Win a FREE copy of Cat Science Unleashed!

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 is Mary Kay Carson, author of The Tornado Scientist, Alexander Graham Bell for Kids, Mission to Pluto, Weird Animals, and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson

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