STEM Tuesday– Tectonics: Volcanoes, Ring of Fire — Interview with Author Katie Coppens

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 Katie Coppens, author of Geology is a Piece of Cake. It’s a “truly delicious, hands-on way to study science in action,” says Kirkus Reviews.

Mary Kay Carson: Tell us a bit about Geology is a Piece of Cake. How did the book come about?

Katie Coppens: I’m a middle school science teacher who uses analogies to help my students understand concepts. One of the analogies my students have enjoyed is learning the difference between a rock and a mineral through cake; where minerals are like the ingredients for cake and the cake is like the rock. Year-after-year, I kept expanding cake examples to a range of concepts in geology, such as fossil formation and plate tectonics. My students benefited from these analogies and the ideas kept coming. Then, I thought of the title for a possible book, Geology is a Piece of Cake, and it all went from there. I started writing, baking, taking photos of cakes, and developing recipes for kids to do that have geological thinking embedded into them. Using this hands-on method is fun and helps concepts resonate!

MKC: Care to share a favorite research experience?

Katie: My children were two and four years old when I wrote the book. For months, I was baking and testing recipes and my kids and I developed a love of baking together. They also became accustomed to having cakes for dessert because it was important to taste test the cakes that had recipes in the book. When I finished writing, my kids were disappointed that the daily desserts stopped. They were delighted when I wrote the companion book Geometry is as Easy as Pie, which teaches math concepts through pie and pie recipes.

MKC: How would you describe the book’s approach?

Katie: Cake is a great hook for kids (and adults!)! It’s a hands-on, delicious way to better understand geology. In addition to teachers’ use in the classroom, parents have also enjoyed making the recipes with their child and learning together. Out of all of the cakes, I think the extrusive molten lava chocolate cake (at left) is the most fun. It represents an extrusive igneous rock and when you cut into it, the chocolate lava flows out!

MKC: To whom did you imagine yourself writing to while drafting the book?

Katie: I was imagining my 6th grade students with every step of writing, which is why I dedicated the book to them! I kept thinking about the questions they ask and they were my inspiration behind writing the book in a question and answer format. One of my favorite moments as an author is when readers reach out to me and with this book, I’ve received emails with photos of the cakes kids have made with their geological thinking! I have a YouTube channel that includes a fun video that some of my students made when they baked a cake from the book.

MKC: Do you choose to write about STEM books?

Katie: I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and have written eight STEM-themed children’s books. I’m also an advisor of my school’s STEM club. My favorite part of STEM is that it encourages creative and critical thinking!


Katie Coppens is an award-winning middle school science teacher who lives in Maine with her husband and two daughters. She’s written eight STEM-themed books for kids and writes a column for the National Science Teaching Association’s Science Scope magazine called “Interdisciplinary Ideas.” Her goal in both teaching and writing is to encourage curiosity and make learning fun. For more information on her books, go to www.katiecoppens.com or follow her @Katie_Coppens on Twitter.

Win a FREE copy of Geology is a Piece of Cake!

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 Wildlife Ranger Action Guide, The Tornado ScientistAlexander Graham Bell for Kids, Mission to Pluto, and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson

STEM Tuesday– Tectonics: Volcanoes, Ring of fire– Writing Tips & Resources

How to Start a Story

What’s one of the hardest parts of writing? Writing very first paragraph (like this one)! The first paragraph of any piece of writing, also called the “lead,” has to accomplish a lot. It must give the reader an idea of what the piece is about. And it must pique the reader’s interest and encourage them to keep reading. How do writers do it?

To find out, I studied the openings in several books from this month’s book list.

Start with a Question

Did you notice I used this technique to begin this blog post? It’s the same technique Kathleen M. Reilly uses to open her book, FAULT LINES & TECTONIC PLATES:

“Did you know that the surface of the planet Earth is similar to one enormous puzzle? A puzzle is made up of anywhere from a few pieces to thousands of pieces. And each piece has a very specific shape that allows it to fit perfectly against another piece of the puzzle, right?

Take a close look at the shape of the continents on our planet. If you study them very carefully, you’ll see that they kind of look like puzzle pieces. …”

What else do you notice about Reilly’s beginning? She uses second-person point of view (you) to address the reader directly. That makes you feel like you’re part of the story. She also introduces the analogy of the puzzle, which she builds on subsequent paragraphs. It helps her explain plate tectonics in a reader-friendly way.

But are questions the only way to start a story? Nope. Read on.

Start with a Scene

In THE BIG ONE, Elizabeth Rusch starts her story this way: “At first you don’t notice the shaking. You think a bus or truck is rumbling by. But the trembling doesn’t start. A few seconds later, paintings and photos on the wall swing slightly. Glasses and dishes rattle. Thud. Bang! Objects all around you – cellphones, water bottles, books – slide off surfaces and clatter to the ground. …”

What do you notice about this opening?

Just like Reilly, Rusch has used second-person POV to put the reader in the story. But she’s gone even farther. She’s put the reader in the middle of the action – an earthquake! She’s used details from the five senses to help us see, feel, and hear what it would be like to experience an earthquake as it happens. And the action is unfolding minute-by-minute, like a television or movie. It’s a captivating opening for sure.

Make It Personal

Johanna Wagstaffe starts with a personal recollection in FAULT LINES: “When I was four years old, I lived with my family in Tokyo, Japan. I remember seeing the polite nods and warm smiles in the crowded subways, riding on the back of my mother’s bicycle through the alleys of the city, and wishing we could visit the five-story Sanrio store. I also remember the regular earthquake drills in our kindergarten class. We would scramble to get under the desks and then line up and march outside. It seemed like a fun game at the time, but there was a seriousness about it.

I first felt the ground move one day when I was playing at home after school. …”

Wagstaffe goes on to relate her first-hand experience of an earthquake.

What is your response to this opening?

Like Rusch, Wagstaffe paints a scene filled with vivid details, but instead of having us imagine ourselves in the middle of the action, four-year-old Wagstaffe is the main character. And she’s the main character and a character in real trouble – an earthquake. What will happen to her? We have to keep reading.

Your Turn

Grab several nonfiction books and study the first paragraph of each. How does the story start? Has the author used one of the techniques we’ve discussed or something different? Did the opening give you an idea of what the book is about and get you excited to read more? Why or why not?

Whenever you’re stuck, remember all these options for openings. Test some out and see what works.

More great posts about story beginnings:

Kirsten Williams Larson author

Kirsten W. Larson



Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She is the author of  WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek), an NSTA Best STEM BOOK, A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion), which earned two starred reviews, and the forthcoming, THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Spring 2022), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Find her at kirsten-w-larson.com or on Twitter and Instagram @KirstenWLarson.

STEM Tuesday– Tectonics: Volcanoes, Ring of fire– In the Classroom

What’s going on in the ground underneath our feet? Why does Earth stretch, shake, and sometimes spit out molten rock? There are a lot of great books to help students learn more about Earth, how it moves, and what causes earthquakes and volcanoes. They are an excellent starting point for activities and discussion in the classroom. Let’s dig in and get ready to rock!

Fault Lines: Understanding The Power Of Earthquakes by Joanna Wagstaffe

A thorough discussion of the science behind earthquakes, advances in monitoring and predicting them, and the numerous subsequent events (such as aftershocks and liquefaction) all framed within the first hand experiences of a female seismologist/meteorologist. Full of photographs, graphics, and specific examples, it also includes a wonderful chapter of preparedness.

Classroom activity: Why does the ground shake during an earthquake? Waves! When an earthquake occurs, energy is released in the earth and sent out in all directions as seismic waves. The shaking that we feel during an earthquake is caused by seismic waves. In this simple activity, students will see how seismic waves called P waves travel through different materials.

You’ll need: a shoebox (without a lid), scissors, string, tape, paper clips

First, use the scissors to make a small hole into opposite ends of the box. Then, run a string through the two holes and secure the ends to the outside of the box with a knot or tape. Attach four or five paper clips to the string inside the box. Next, put the box on a table so that the string is vertical. Then, hit the table with a fist hard enough to make it vibrate.

What happens to the paper clips? Do they vibrate? Why does this happen? Have students explain how this experiment relates to earthquakes. You can change this activity by changing the size of the paper clips and the thickness of the string. Have students explain the new results.


Mount St. Helens by Jen Green

After vividly explaining the impressive effects of Mount St Helens’ eruption, the book examines the source, location, and structure of volcanoes around the world. As well as the aftermath and eventual recovery of the area. A glossary and additional resources offer additional information on active volcanos worldwide.

Classroom activity: Did you know that there are more than 65 active volcanoes in the United States? Have students research U.S. volcanoes. Where are they located? Have students create a map that shows volcanoes in the United States. Which volcanoes are considered the most dangerous? Divide students into small groups and assign each group a dangerous volcano to research. Have each group prepare a multimedia presentation for the class about their volcano.


Plate Tectonics by Charlotte Luongo

This book begins with the idea that continents were once attached, and showing fossil evidence that supports that idea. Not only do plates shake the Earth, but the concept shook the accepted theories on age of the Earth and how it formed. From there, the book explores undersea evidence for continental drift, and looks at the technologies used to track the movement of Earth’s plates.

Classroom activity: Ask students to define a fault in geology. What types of faults are there? What role do faults have in earthquakes? Divide students into small groups and assign each group a type of fault. Have the students create a model of their assigned fault type. They can create a physical 3-D model or a computer animation. Give a real-life example of this type of fault. What happens when there is movement along the fault?

Looking to explore more and learn how Earth moves? Browse through the pages of these activity books and choose a few to do in class or at home!

Dynamic Planet: Exploring Changes on Earth with Science Projects by Tammy Enz

This book includes seven miniature Earth-shattering experiments that explore different aspects of geology. Experiment topics include plate tectonics, volcanoes, and tsunamis and suitable for classroom or home.




Fault Lines & Tectonic Plates: Discover What Happens When the Earth’s Crust Moves With 25 Projects (Build It Yourself) by Kathleen M. Reilly.

Each of six chapters explores one aspect of plate tectonics: how they move, earthquakes, volcanoes, and more. Sidebars and textboxes highlight words to know, essential questions, and links to primary sources. Activities include making a seismograph and building a shake table to test model structures.




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. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, three kids, and dog. When not writing, she can often be spotted at a hockey rink for one of her kids’ games. Find her at http://www.carlamooney.com, on Facebook @carlamooneyauthor, or on Twitter @carlawrites.