Serendipity Science

STEM Tuesday — Serendipity Science — Interview with author Sarah Albee

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

Today we’re interviewing Sarah Albee, author of Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries.  The book is a fascinating compilation of discoveries, often made by ordinary people, that changed the way we view history.  Sarah Albee is known not only for presenting facts in an interesting way, but showing how everything we study is interconnected. In a way, she’s building higher order thinking in her readers one book at a time. Because the pandemic affected the release of a number of good STEM books, I wanted to bring this particular title to our reader’s attention.

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Christine Taylor-Butler: Sarah, you’ve published a wide variety of books for children. How did you get started in publishing?

Albee books

Sarah Albee: My first year out of college I worked in Egypt for a year. After that I knew I wanted to work in publishing. I landed a job with Children’s Television Workshop which produced Sesame Street. Today it’s known as Sesame Workshop. It wasn’t easy to break into the television side of the business so I moved to the publishing division. I was hired as an editorial assistant. That’s when I realized I really wanted to write for children. One of my responsibilities was to fly to Bologna Children’s Book Festival in Italy each year. I speak Italian so I set up the booth and helped translate for my boss and coworkers. I worked for CTW for nine years and was promoted to Senior Editor during that time. Afterwards, I started freelancing for Sesame Street while raising my children. I wrote a lot of fiction and learned early on how to hit deadlines. It was incredible training. I put in my “ten thousand hours” as Malcom Gladwell would say, to develop my skills over time. I wrote constantly and became very efficient. That experience helped me grow as a writer.

Fun fact, I got to meet the Muppets!

CTB: Okay, let’s back up a minute. After college, you spent a year working in Egypt? Wow! What did you do for that year?

Sarah: I was lucky. I got an internship at the press office of American University in Cairo. I edited English language books for adults. Later, I got a freelance job illustrating books.

CTB: As a parent and an author I’m always pointing students toward the benefits of traveling abroad. Do you have a special memory of your time there?

AUC courtSarah: Yes. I was walking across campus one day and saw a basketball sitting on this beautiful court. I played basketball at Harvard and was in good shape. So I started shooting baskets. As luck would have it, a coach was walking through the court and saw me playing. He wanted to talk but I didn’t speak Arabic and he didn’t speak English. He found a student who could translate for us. Because of that chance encounter I ended up playing semi-pro basketball. It was one of the best experiences of my time there. The women on my team all spoke Arabic, but not all spoke English. Some spoke French. So the time outs were held in all three languages. I became good friends with the other women on the team. Egypt is a very private society so the games became a great way to talk and learn more about the culture.

CTB: We share a similar view on pursuing knowledge for the sake of it instead of a specific career. That’s not as common as it should be in society.

Sarah: I consider myself a generalist. Throughout history, enlightenment thinkers saw acquiring knowledge as an end to itself. I look at the way we educate children today. They go to math class, then English, then Social Studies, etc.  It’s an artificial construct. We don’t make connections between the individual disciplines. Instead we treat them as separate topics.

Albee BuggedCTB:  You take a different approach when writing nonfiction. I’ve noticed a trend across your body of work. You go well beyond basic facts to make connections other people might not consider.

Sarah: Yes. That’s why it’s hard to find a place for my book on a classroom or library shelf. I try to connect dots. When I write a book about insects it’s put in the science section but it’s really about history too.

CTB: Then we both agree that, ideally, we need to think more broadly about how we teach children.

Sarah: Exactly. When I’m researching a topic I’m thinking, “What else was happening at that time?” Here’s a good example: We teach children about the Roman empire but at that same point in history the Han Dynasty in China was much larger. In another example, Beethoven was composing his third symphony at the same time Lewis and Clark were leading a western expedition.

Hobble skirtI like vertical and horizontal history. I ask myself, “What was being invented at the same time?” “Who was friends with whom?” Want to know why was there a sudden explosion of self portraits during the Renaissance? It corresponded with the invention of mirrors in the 15th century. Suddenly people could see what they looked like. Another fun fact I uncovered was at Harvard. The Widener Library was finished in the early 1900’s but the risers on the staircase are shallow – about 4 inches tall. I wondered what happened in history to cause that. It turns out that was the era when hobble skirts were popular.  Women had to take tiny mincing steps to walk in them so architects built that into their design.

CTB: Let’s talk about ACCIDENTAL ARCHAEOLOGISTS which fits the this month’s STEM TUESDAY theme perfectly. It’s also a Junior Library Guild selection.

Albee ArchaelogistsSarah: Thanks. I’m really proud of this book. I got the idea while working on North America – a fold out timeline of America, published by What On Earth Books in tandem with the Smithsonian. I was researching Mexico in the 20th century. One year a construction worker was burying electrical cable beneath the streets of Mexico. While digging he uncovered an enormous stone. It turned out to be a section of Templo Mayor, the main temple for the ancient capital city of Tenochtitlan. So I thought, “There has to be other stories like that.” In the book, I open with a discovery then discuss where, who, what and why it’s significant. I try to contextualize the information for kids – the history, the science and the human connections.

ruinsI went into the research thinking archaeology is the ultimate objective truth. People talk about only using primary sources, but those can sometimes be flawed. I use a combination of primary and secondary sources. For example, a professor who spent their life studying something may be a reliable source in addition to information in a diary. The truth is that sometimes archaeologists can be biased. The field has such a checkered history about sexism and racism. Here’s an example: the Zimbabwe ruins are stone structures in what was once Rhodesia. These magnificent edifices were precise and put together without mortar. It’s genius. They were discovered by male archaeologists in the late 1800’s. Someone decided that African people couldn’t have possibly built something that sophisticated so it must have been a different civilization, maybe the Phoenicians. Later, a female archaeology team proved without a shadow of a doubt that based on dating, the ruins had been built by African people. The Zimbabwe ruins didn’t make the book because the discovery wasn’t accidental. But it’s an excellent example of how bias can shape perception and that bias is then carried into books until unbiased research proves the assumptions to be wrong.

I’ve learned that you do your best to triangulate all the sources of information to get as close to the truth as you can. That’s the underlying theme of my work.

CTB: That’s the hard part of what we do. Evaluating information in context. What might be underlying the information we are reading and whether it is biased based on the time the documentation was created.

Cowboy George McJunkinSarah: Yes. Here’s an example in the book. I read about a Black cowboy, George McJunkin who lived in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. He was enslaved as a child but was later freed. He worked to become a cow wrangler but was a scientist at heart. Fluent in Spanish, he had his own science equipment. He was also well respected and helped to resolve land disputes. He was the “go to guy” for things like that. In 1908 there was a big flood near the ranch he lived on. He went to check his fences and discovered a huge gully had opened up. Inside he saw huge white bones. Right away he knew they are ancient and might be bison. There was something cool about them. They were larger than contemporary bison. So McJunkin wrote to a museum and to several men and tried to generate interest in the discovery. But cars weren’t common and it was too hard for anyone to travel there easily. After his death, cars were more widely available, The two men he’d contacted drove out to investigate McJunkin’s discovery. Those men then contacted a museum. Not only had McJunkin found these bison, but after one of the skeletons was removed scientists found a spear point between the ribs. That changed what archaeologists knew about Native Americans. It proved that humans had coexisted with these animals much earlier than thought. It moved the date back by 10,000 years. McJunkin got no credit for the discovery. He was a Black male and a cowboy. There had been a bias towards the contributions of people who weren’t part of the majority. Only now is he finally being recognized.

CTB: Book research is great but sometimes the best resources are serendipitous and you find help in unlikely places.

Golden BuddhaSarah: My husband teaches at a high school. I was researching a story about a giant solid gold buddha in Bangkok. It was about nine feet tall and originally covered in concrete plaster. It wasn’t very attractive and was moved several times throughout its history. In the 1950’s it was being moved to a permanent display. As it was being lifted the cable broke and the buddha fell to the ground. The plaster cracked and revealed a statue underneath made of solid gold. Most of the stories I’d read were not from reliable sources. My husband introduced me to a student from Thailand. I asked for her help finding Thai sources. Turns out she lived close to the temple. When she went home on break, she began sending me photos, descriptions and notes from her conversations with monks at the temple. To get this right I then had to learn more about Thai history and who might have covered the statue. It turns out the Burmese were invading the territory so monks covered the statue with concrete plaster to keep it from being stolen. After a while, knowledge of what was underneath the plaster was forgotten.

CTB: So what’s up next? Is there a book we should be putting on our radar?

Sarah: Fairy Tale Science: Explore 25 Classic Tales through Hand’s On Experiments comes out in Fall of 2021. I’m so excited about it. It features twenty-five (25) tales, some well known, some international and lesser known. I start each tale with a synopsis which is tongue in cheek. Then I pull out the scientific questions. For example, could a pair of glass slippers sustain the stress of ballroom dancing? Could hair really hold the weight of a prince climbing up a tower? Is stone soup a mixture, or does it undergo a chemical change? Then I follow up with experiments the readers can do.

CTB: It’s a brilliant way to engage students by using something already familiar. But identifying science in fairy tales had to be a daunting task (and I’ll confess I’m sad I didn’t think of that first.)

Sarah: The book was hard to write because the research involved physics, chemistry, botany and astronomy among others. I thought, “What am I doing? I can’t write this!” But scientists tend to be specialized. Einstein, for example, was a genius but he had a hard time explaining his concepts to regular people. He didn’t understand why other people didn’t understand his research. So I decided I was the right person to write a book like this because I had to understand the science in order to explain it to the reader. If I’m looking into a subject I have to learn about concepts like buoyancy and sheer stress fractures. It was a super fun book to write. Plus I had the advantage of talking to a retired scientist who loved to talk about physics. At one point we were talking for an hour and a half each day. This book is very much in my wheelhouse. There’s a lot of making connections and finding something familiar to kids to draw them in.

CTB: Well now I want to dive in too. I’d like to thank Sarah for stopping by for an interview. In children’s literature, she’s become a science and history interpreter. Always well researched and engaging, keep an eye out for Sarah’s future titles to round out your S.T.E.A.M. book acquisitions.

Win a FREE copy of Accidental Archeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries.

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!


Albee Science

Photo by Peter Frew

Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 100 books for children. A graduate of Harvard University, her substantial body of work includes numerous preschool titles for Sesame Street, early readers and nonfiction for middle grade. Her work has been recognized by Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections, Notable Social Studies Trade Books, and Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Awards.  To learn more about Sarah visit You can follow her on Twitter @sarahalbee

Christine Taylor-ButlerYour host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT nerd and author of Bathroom Science, Sacred Mountain: Everest, Genetics, and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and/or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram


STEM Tuesday — Serendipity Science — Writing Tips and Resources

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but, ‘That’s funny … ‘ “ – Isaac Asimov

Serendipity science. In the high-brow world of “real” science, we often poo-poo the very idea of serendipity being even remotely involved in science done “the real way”. We like to think we are in complete control. We like to think we have all the answers or the best possible answers already tucked away in our magnificent brains. 

But we don’t.

Science is not about how much we know; it’s about how much we don’t know. We often get this backward. Science and STEM, in general, are about using what we know to find out what we don’t know in order to improve our understanding.

It’s about paying attention!

ESA/XMM-Newton/N. Webb (XMM-Newton Survey Science Centre), CC BY-SA IGO 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO via Wikimedia Commons (See note below the O.O.L.F Files for the image description.)

The scientific method we all memorized repeatedly throughout our academic experience is just a guidebook. It’s like a vacation guide. The important things, the memorable parts of a vacation, are often what happens between and around the listed vacation spots. In the scientific method, like with the vacation guidebook, the true magic lies between the listings. The observations we make along the way and the way we incorporate them into the big picture are what matters. 

We not only have to do the work; we have to pay attention along the way. Something may be out there we didn’t expect. We have to be smart enough, open-minded enough, and prepared enough to recognize the unexpected and use it to our advantage. Ah, in short, this is what serendipity science truly is. It’s not pure or blind luck. It’s not magic. It’s not even Divine Intervention. It’s paying attention when things don’t go as expected or predicted. 

What does this science rant from a scientist/author have to do with a STEM Tuesday Writing Tips & Resources post about serendipity?

Well, almost all the things I ranted on about STEM and science above can be applied to STEM writing. We’ve all seen this writing advice. Write what you know.

Write what you know? Maybe? Maybe not?

How about “write what you want to know”? 

Serendipity can be a writer’s best friend. Use the power of serendipity to unlock the potential in our storytelling. Nonfiction, informative fiction, and fiction can all benefit from paying attention to the things that happen during the writing process.

Think about mind mapping or outlining or free writing, or the classic crappy first drafting. We use all these to not only come up with ways to effectively express our ideas but as an organizational tool. Where does serendipity fit in here? Serendipity often results in a new idea or direction we never knew existed. New ideas and directions that allow the pieces to click into place or clear a blocked path in the writing process. Serendipity might just be the “muse” creative people often allude to. 

However, we can never forget two very important things. First, in order to mine the power of serendipity, work has to be done. In science or creative work, heck, in just about anything, nothing can happen if you’re not working. Fleming had to design and set up the staphylococcus experiments before discovering the unwanted mold on the agar plates killed the bacteria in close proximity. Hard work is the magic! 

The second thing is maybe even more important. We have to pay attention! We have to observe and think! What if Fleming would have just tossed those Petri plates out the window in a fit of rage over poor technique in making the agar? So long antibiotics! But he didn’t throw a fit when things apparently went south, he paid attention. Bingo!

Do the work, pay attention, and unlock the power of serendipity! 


Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded, equal opportunity sports enthusiast, 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 at and writer stuff at www.mikehaysbooks.comTwo of his science essays, The Science of Jurassic Park and Zombie Microbiology 101,  are included in the Putting the Science in Fiction collection from Writer’s Digest Books. He can be found roaming around the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64.

The O.O.L.F Files

This month’s Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files searches the vast expanses of the digital universe to stumble upon information that can further explain the oft-maligned and ill-defined process of serendipitous science.



(Note: Besides being absolutely beautiful to look at, the image above has such a cool backstory, I felt it proper to add the Wikimedia description below. I hope you think it’s as cool as I do even though I only understand about 10% of it. You know what this means, right? Time for a visit down the Google rabbit hole of research!

“Description: The purple lines and blotches scattered across this image show something incredible: all of the X-ray sources that were serendipitously detected – that is, not intentionally targeted – by ESA’s XMM-Newton X-ray space observatory from 2000 to 2017.
This image is based on a catalogue named 3XMM-DR8, the latest publicly released catalogue of serendipitous XMM-Newton X-ray sources, created on behalf of ESA by the XMM-Newton Survey Science Centre.
The catalogue, released in May 2018, features sources in the 0.2 to 12 keV energy range drawn from 10 242 observations made by XMM-Newton’s European Photon Imaging Camera (EPIC), an instrument capable of detecting very faint sources and rapid changes in intensity, between 3 February 2000 and 30 November 2017. It contains 532 more observations and 47 363 more detections than the preceding 3XMM-DR7 catalogue, which was made public in June 2017.
While the pattern of sources across the sky may appear random, some structure can be seen here. The oval represents the celestial sphere, an abstract perspective upon which our observations of the Universe are projected. The data are plotted in galactic coordinates, such that the centre of the plot corresponds to the centre of our Milky Way galaxy – and this can be seen in the image. Through the centre of the oval is a horizontal line, where patches of purple appear to draw together. This line is the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, with the large splotch of colour in the centre corresponding to our galaxy’s core, where XMM-Newton made a higher number of serendipitous detections.
XMM-Newton has been orbiting the Earth since 1999, observing the cosmos around us while on the hunt for X-rays coming from high-energy phenomena such as black holes, stellar winds, pulsars, and neutron stars. With every patch of sky that XMM-Newton observes, the telescope detects between 50 and 100 serendipitous sources, such as those shown here, besides the objects that were the original target of the observations. This is due to the large collecting area of the telescope’s mirrors and its wide field of view.
All-sky images and large-scale cosmic data are immensely valuable in our study of the cosmos. Upcoming missions – such as the eROSITA space telescope, a German-led satellite scheduled for launch on 12 July to complete the first all-sky survey in the medium-energy X-ray band, up to 10keV – will add to this wealth of knowledge, and help further our understanding of the X-ray Universe.”)



STEM Tuesday — Serendipity Science — In the Classroom



This month’s book list highlights of my most favorite aspect of science –Serendipity! Why is it my favorite? Because while everyone may say science is exact, it is anything but that. Scientists conduct do research, make hypotheses, and then conduct experiments. Many times, the results they get are not what they anticipated in the first place. But that doesn’t mean they are wrong. Perhaps they have just discovered a new element, product, or created a brand new drug that will change the world (Alexander Fleming and penicillin)… accidentally!


While you most likely aren’t crazy about the idea of letting your students just do experiments without guidelines in your classroom on the off chance they will discover something amazing,  one of the best ways to introduce them to this topic is to introduce them to Mistakes That Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be by Charlotte Foltz Jones, illustrated by John O’Brien or Accidental Inventions: The Chance Discoveries That Changed Our Lives by Birgit Krols


Mistakes that Worked book cover

Accidental Inventions Book cover


Classroom Activities: Split the class up into four to six small groups. Have each group pick one or two inventions and discuss them amongst themselves. Write out what they think is the turning point in the discovery? Ie. When did the scientist realize what they did was not a failure but a success? And then how did they turn their product into something that was marketable? Each group can make a poster or give a talk about their invention and inventors to the rest of the class. Class discussion can focus on HOW it was turned into an invention that became a product to be sold or used. (Hint: this also teaches a bit of economics.)

Here are a few resources for students to use:


How To Become An Accidental Genius

Have Students that want to invent something to change the world? Have them read through How To Become An Accidental Genius by Frieda Wishinsky, Elizabeth MacLeod, illustrated by Jenn Playford. This is a fabulous book for teaching kids HOW to become an inventor.

Classroom Activity:

This can be done in groups, pairs, or individually. Have students come up with their own invention. Use the steps in this book to develop a plan which contains the following

  • Have them outline what their invention is
  • How it will be used
  • List the materials they’ll need to create it
  • Design and draw it
  • Develop a method for the experiment and creation
  • Discuss what they’ll do if they have to make changes
  • How will they market it

Then have them present it to the class. My guess is, you’ll have some pretty amazing inventions! Kids are very creative and ingenious. This could be a fun thing to share with other classes or for a STEM night at school.


Show them this  video to be inspired by REAL  kids who came up with their own inventions!

iKids — The Inventive Kids site is a place where children and adults can learn about inventors and inventions, and their own creative potential!



The OTHER part of Serendipity Science is when someone stumbles on a great scientific or technological find. Science is a made up of curiosity, perseverance, and yes, luck. Sometimes the best discovery happens when you are in the right place at the right time.

One of my favorite books that showcases how anyone can make discoveries is Sarah Albee’s Accidental Archeologist. This book is chock full of discoveries made, well, accidentally.


Accidental Archaeology by Sarah Albee

Classroom activity: Have the kids read through the table of contents, just to get an idea of what was discovered. They can then pick a chapter and read through as a group or individuals. Make a list of the following

  • How the discovery was made
  • Where the person was when it happened
  • What was the person doing?
  • Where they looking for something else and made this discovery instead?

Then have the students think about something they might  have discovered accidentally? Have they ever found a penny on the sidewalk? Discovered a fossil? Picked up a rock that didn’t belong with the other ones? Seen an animal that is normally nocturnal (out at night) during the day? All of these are accidental discoveries. By paying attention to the world around them, maybe one day they could make a BIG discovery like the people in Albee’s book.




Hope you  have fun with this month’s topic!




Jennifer Swanson is the award-winning author of over 45 books for kids, mostly about STEM and STEAM. She is the founder of the STEM Tuesday blog and STEAM Team Books. She has a cool podcast for kids and families called        Solve IT! for Kids— check it out!  You can discover more about Jennifer and book her for events at her website: