Tiny Worlds/Microscopic/Nanotech

STEM Tuesday– Tiny Worlds (Microscopic/Nanotech)- Interview with Author Nicola Davies

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 Nicola Davies about her book TINY CREATURES: The World of Microbes. School Library Journal calls it a “look at these minuscule organisms and the effect they can have on everything from our bodies to the soil to the clouds in the sky.”

Mary Kay Carson: How did you come to write Tiny Creatures?

Nicola: There are so many things in children’s lives that are related to microbes from always being told to ‘cover your mouth when you sneeze,’ ‘wash your hands before dinner,’ and having to be vaccinated, to favourite foods like cheese and yoghourt. Microbes are everywhere, an incredibly important part of all our lives, so it made sense that even the smallest children should know about them. Also, I loved the idea of invisible, magical worlds when I was little and in microbes we have one all around us, all the time!

MKC: You dug up lots of fascinating facts about microbes during your research! What especially surprised you?

Nicola: As a biology student long ago I was fascinated by the forms of microscopic plants, such as diatoms and unicellular animals like euglena and amoeba. Since then the technology of micro photography has advanced and there are even more beautiful photographs of these astounding mini life forms; looking at those was a real delight.

Nicola Davies is an award-winning author and a zoologist whose seemingly boundless enthusiasm for studying animals of all kinds has led her around the world. Fortunately for young readers, she is just as excited about sharing her interests through picture books. When not swimming with whales, sharks, or sea lions, traveling game reserves in Kenya, or off on other scientific expeditions, Nicola Davies gives writing workshops for students, writes books, and once she made a chair. She lives in Wales. www.nicola-davies.com

But I think the most amazing statistic I learned was the contribution to the oxygen in the air we breathe made by marine diatoms. One in every five breaths that you take is essentially provided by these beautiful, microscopic little plants. It was yet another example of how all life on earth is connected in a complex network, a network which supports us all and which we damage at our peril.

MKC: Do you have a STEM background?

Nicola: My life’s passion is zoology, although admittedly usually I am concerned with multicellular organisms. I did a Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge and did post grad study on bats and whales.

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

Nicola: Simple and accessible. I knew it wasn’t necessary or possible to put the whole of microbiology into a picture book, but I wanted to provide readers — both children AND their parents — with a seedbed of knowledge that would let them understand some of the basic things they may encounter in everyday life. I also wanted to inspire a sense of wonder and also of humbleness- we think our sense tell us everything we need to know but there is so much that we don’t see. It’s important to remember that real knowledge and understanding come first from admitting that you don’t know everything! My job as STEM picture book author is to make sure that at the end of the book, my readers understand a little and want to understand a lot more. My books aim to be a gateway into a world of lifelong learning and dialogue with the world.


Win a FREE copy of Tiny Creatures!

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– Tiny Worlds (Microscopic/Nanotech)- Writing Tips & Resources



Figuring on Figurative language


“What is it?” A small hand lifts a treasure toward my face. It is brown and round and was found along our rocky trail.

“What does it look like?” I ask as I lower his hand back down to my student’s eye level.

“No, I mean, what is it called?” His earnest eyes plead with me to identify it.

“I suppose it has a name, but I’d rather take a closer look.”

He looks at me like I’m being difficult, which I guess I kind of am. I often sidestep the step of labeling the treasures my students find as we explore outdoors. Instead, I pull out two jeweler’s loupes and hand him one. Holding the magnifier to my eye, I squat and lean over his hand. “Wow! It looks like the surface of the moon!” I lean back to give him a turn. “What does it remind you of?”

Five minutes later, my young friend has a list of 15 analogies (a farmer’s field, skin with pimples, crumpled paper bag, a lonely egg, …) and is drafting a poem based on this natural artifact.

No longer stubbornly stuck on “What is it?” his brain was free to observe and associate, think and create, synthesize and evaluate analogies. Deep thinking, all thanks to looking closely and a few careful probes.

Changing Scale

That trick of changing scale and asking questions works wonders for both scientific and writing work. Something about diving into microscopic worlds allows our mind to operate at a different cognitive level. We are no longer harnessed to the prescribed method of investigation, the expected question, the quantitative answer.

Take a look at some of this month’s highlighted books and you’ll see how “looking little” results in impressive investigations and fantastic language. Stephen Kamer’s Hidden Worlds: Looking Through a Scientist’s Microscope provides a great example. You’ll see stalks of mold described as “a bouquet of exotic flower,” saltwater diatoms which will remind you of a kitchen sponge, a butterfly mouth that looks like a spring.

When I am trying to strengthen figurative language in my writing, I look little and practice by looking at the world through my jeweler’s loupes. It’s not microscopic, but it does the trick. I learned this technique from The Private Eye Project, a program that provides professional development for educators on thinking by analogy. http://www.the-private-eye.com/index.html Once I started seeing analogies in the micro world, I couldn’t stop seeing them in the macro world. Train your brain (and your students’) and whole new worlds will be opened to you.


Try it Yourself

Let’s practice together with this image.

What does it look like?


Hair released from a braid


Rain drops sliding down windshield – stormy nights

Earthworm trails

The color of mountains, dried cactus, shredded wheat cereal

Chocolate milk

Now you add on to the list.

Keep going! There are no wrong answers here.

Notice how some of my items reminded me of additional, tangential items? That’s great. That means the mind is reaching further.

Be sure to write all of your items down. There are NO WRONG ANSWERS!


Let’s do another:

What does it look like?

Teeth – dentist

Cogs on a machine

Tiny fingers

Bristly like my doormat

Hands – hands coming together in huddle for sports team, the cheer from friends and family

Rows in a farmer’s field

Color of straw

Paint brush tips

Toothpicks – corn on the cob, summers at the lake, Grandpa

Add on to the list. Keep going! There are no wrong answers here.



Now, do this one on your own:

What does it look like?

Keep going! There are no wrong answers here.

Take it Further

  • Get a magnifier. Any magnifier will work but I prefer Private Eye’s loupes because they fit to my eye, blocking out all other distractions.
  • Select an object from nature. The more mysterious the object, the better, but it can be something simple like a leaf.
  • Ask yourself what it looks like. Write at least 10 things. For additional prompts, compare it to objects in the kitchen, your bedroom, sports equipment. Concentrate on the texture, the color, or one section of the object.

Wondering why I avoid identifying these nature treasures? When I label items that closes one door of possibilities to your mind. For developing figurative language, we want our minds as wide open as possible.


Heather L. Montgomery loves to look little. Thinking by analogy helped her write books such as Bugs Don’t Hug: Six-Legged Parents and Their Kids (Charlesbridge), Little Monsters of the Ocean: Metamorphosis Under the Waves (Millbrook Press), Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill (Bloomsbury). For more about Heather, her work and her educational programs, visit www.HeatherLMontgomery.com.




This month, the Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files provide links to amazing images to spark even more analogies. Dive in and enjoy!


Extraordinary Microworld of Dennis Kunkel


Science as Art


Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Contest Winners (From 1944 – present)


Scanning Electron Microscope Photography of David Scharf


STEM Tuesday– Tiny Worlds (Microscopic/Nanotech)- In the Classroom

This month’s STEM Tuesday theme revolves around the small, the tiny, and the microscopic—from nanotechnology to microorganisms. Microbes and fungus may be small, but their effects in the world are far from that. They are vital to Earth’s complex, constantly cycling systems, which range from microscopic to monumental. What could microbes do? Try this activity in the classroom to help students understand how microorganisms can have big effects.


Yeast + Sugar Balloon Experiment

Student Prep

Read through Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies and It’s a Fungus Among Us: The Good, the Bad & the Downright Scary by Carla Billups and Dawn Cusick as a class. Then tell students that microbes are in everything from the soil to our bodies to even our food. Explain that they will be doing a microbial experiment using yeast (a microorganism that is a member of the fungi kingdom). Then distribute materials to groups of students.

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies

This book is perfect for the curious kid who wants to know how microbes work. All around the world—in the sea, in the soil, in the air, and in your body—there are living things so tiny that millions could fit on an ant’s antenna. They’re busy doing all sorts of things, from giving you a cold and making yogurt to eroding mountains and helping to make the air we breathe.

It’s a Fungus Among Us: The Good, the Bad & the Downright Scary by Carla Billups and Dawn Cusick

All about Fungus! Who wouldn’t want to read this book? In It’s a Fungus Among Us, you’ll meet the wild group of organisms that can turn ants into zombies and eat trillions of pounds of feces every day. They’re not all gross though, these are the same types of organisms that make cheese stretchy, add sour tastes to candy, and make bread rise!



  • empty clear water bottle
  • yeast packet
  • balloon (stretched out by inflating a few times)
  • warm water
  • 1 tsp. sugar


  1. Have students empty the yeast packet into the water bottle. Then tell them to pour some of the warm water inside. Students should move the bottle a bit to mix the yeast and water.
  2. Ask students to stretch the balloon over the water bottle opening and observe what happens in the next 5 minutes. They should record their observations.
  3. Next have students carefully remove the balloon. Tell them to add 1 tsp. sugar to the bottle and mix. Students can now put the balloon back over the bottle opening.
  4. Have students observe the mixture and the balloon over the next 20 minutes. They can record their observations ever 5 minutes.


As the yeast consumes the sugar in the warm water mixture, the microbes produce gas that inflates the balloon at the top of the bottle. Tell students that this process is called fermentation, which is a process used to make all kinds of foods that we eat. Bread becomes light and airy due to fermentation. Milk turns into yogurt or kefir because of fermentation. The fermentation process also helps humans and animals digest food. This is just one of the many examples of how microbes affect us on Earth.


Need more ideas for teaching middle-school students about microbes? Check out these resources:

  • BioEd Online, Science Teacher Resources from Baylor College of Medicine, Microbes
    This site has 12 lessons to help students investigate microbes related to health (bacteria, fungi, protists, and viruses). Students will learn that microbes have important roles in humans, and that some help while others cause diseases. http://www.bioedonline.org/lessons-and-more/lessons-by-topic/microorganisms/microbes/
  • Microbiology Society, Microbe Passports
    Students can check out a virtual microscope on this site to study different microbes—from Bifidobacterium (which lives in human intestines) to Geobacter metallireducens (a metal-eating microbe that lives in muddy riverbeds).
  • Science News for Students, The dirt on soil
    Read all about the microbes in soil on this online science news publication site run by the Society for Science and the Public. It includes a glossary of “Power Words,” links for further reading, and a downloadable wordfind worksheet.


Karen Latchana Kenney loves to write books about animals, and looks for them wherever she goes—from leafcutter ants trailing through the Amazon rain forest in Guyana, where she was born, to puffins in cliff-side burrows on the Irish island of Skellig Michael. She especially enjoys creating books about nature, biodiversity, conservation, and groundbreaking scientific discoveries—but also writes about civil rights, astronomy, historical moments, and many other topics. Her award-winning and star-reviewed books have been named a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, a 2015 Book of Note from the TriState Review Committee, a 2011 Editor’s Choice for School Library Connection, and Junior Library Guild selections. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and son, and bikes, hikes, and gazes at the night sky in northern Minnesota any moment she can.