Posts Tagged homeschool

STEM Tuesday– Material Science– Interview with Author Jennifer Swanson

Super Gear Book


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

Today, I’m delighted to interview the founder of STEM Tuesday, Jennifer Swanson!

Jennifer is a huge fan of STEM and loves to write about technical topics. She did just that in her SUPER GEAR: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up! book with Charlesbridge Publishing.

Super Gear Book



A book about nanotechnology and sports… how did you put those two topics together? 

  Well I’ve always loved technonogy and I love sports, too. In fact, I’ve played tons of sports my whole life. Those I haven’t played, I’ve watched. I’m a huge fan of the Olympics, too. We used to watch it as a family. Do you remember when Michael Phelps wore that full-body swimsuit in the 2008 Beijing Olympics? I do! It was fabulous and he won tons of medals with it. So did his teammates. Sooo many records were broken that year. I was definitely intrigued. What was that amazing swimsuit made of? Turns out, it was developed with nanotechnology. 

Did you know anything about nanotechnology at the time? 

Not much. But as I said, I was very intrigued by the suit, so I set about learning more. That’s how I am with pretty much all of the topics I write. I read about something cool in the news and I just have to learn more about it. You know, understand how it works and also WHY it works. Usually as I learn more, I get really excited about the technology and all of the applications it has and then, well, I have to write about it. That’s what happened with this book!

Nanotechnology is a pretty technical topic. Was it difficult to sell this idea?

Sort of. I mean, when you have a fairly technical topic, you really have to come up with a great hook. One that will cause even people who aren’t interested in STEM to be intrigued by your topic. The best way I’ve found to get editors and agents interested in technical topics is to put the hook in the title. A great title grabs their attention fast! And that gets them to read the rest of your proposal. So, that’s a good first step. (Of course, the writing is everything, so the rest of your proposal has to be written well, too). 

What are some cool things you learned about sports and the nanomaterials that are used in them?

First of all, this book came out a few years back, so the applications for nanomaterials have actually expanded significantly since then. Nanotechnology is used to create almost all of the materials in many different sports. It allows for stronger, more durable, and yet flexible materials, which then support athletes in their performance. 

For example, golf is one sport that uses a lot of nanotechnology in its materials. Everything from the dimples on the ball, to the core inside the golf ball, to the head and shaft of the golf club is specially designed with nanomaterials, like carbon fibers. This allows players to hit the ball farther, higher, and with much more accuracy than ever before. Just do an internet search of golf balls and nanotechnology and see how many different balls use the words nanotech or carbon fibers, or graphene. It’s pretty incredible. 

Nanotechnology is in so many other objects, too. How did you decide on sports as your focus? 

Well, aside from loving sports, I figured that was my biggest hook. Yes, nanomaterials are used in many objects in medicine, recycling, and even in energy. But the one topic I thought might most resonate with kids was sports. 

And then I played up that connection in my proposal. I did a search for sports words and phrases like Team Up! and Play Ball and Tee it Up, etc. I find that makes people smile when they read and also shows that I did my research on the topic. 


What would you like readers to take away from your book? 

I hope they find nanotechnology as exciting as I do. That they learn about these cool materials and also that they think about the engineering that made them every time they pick up a bat, golf club, tennis racket or put on a swimsuit. 


Author Jennifer Swanson

Jennifer Swanson’s love of science began when she started a science club in her garage at the age of 7. While no longer working from the garage, Jennifer’s passion for science resonates in the fascinating 45 nonfiction books she has written for children.

Learn more about Jennifer at



Check out her two new STEM books releasing this year!



cover art shows an astronaut in full gear against a dark background with title in neon letteringLEGO AMazing Earth book


STEM Tuesday– Material Science– Writing Tips and Resources

Materials Science is a new category for me. My research turned up intriguing connections with arts activities because much of it is about discoveries. So, this blog post is about some Very New research on materials and a Very Old technique for science exploration that is wonderfully flexible, easy and inexpensive, and makes use of recycled and sustainable materials.Neri Oxman photo

I was particularly pleased to find the Very New in the work of Neri Oxman. She blurs the line between science and design. Wikipedia describes her work as “embodying environmental design and digital morphogenesis*, with shapes and properties that are determined by their context.” Yes*, I had to look it up too. It means, according to Merriam-Webster – a branch of biology that deals with the form and structure of animals and plants. There have been a number of good books on Materials Science in the previous May STEM Tuesday blogs. Ms. Oxman’s writings and articles are in anthologies and scholarly journals, so instead I have included a link to her documentary “Nature x Humanity,” with the hope that you will find her take on Materials Science to be worth following in the future.

She says that 2020 is the year in which the anthropomass (manufactured materials) will exceed the biomass on our planet. Current building practices are the main culprits. She offers alternate building materials and structures that will break down. For instance, one building material she helped to develop can be disposed of by dropping it into the sea. It will dissolve and provide nutrients for fish.

I emailed her and in her kind response, she sent a link to the documentary about sustainable architecture and protecting the earth’s resources (see below). It’s for adults and older students and very thought provoking. Imagine structures built from apple peels and shrimp shells (what do you suppose Legal Seafoods thought when she asked for all their discarded shrimp shells?). Or imagine a glass structure that can heat your home without conventional fuel, constructed on a 3D printer.

Here is the link to “Nature x Humanity.” The description says, “We are pleased to present our documentary entitled Nature x Humanity. The documentary debuts at a critical juncture when the anthropomass—the mass produced by humans—has exceeded that of the living biomass on our planet. Through the lens of five projects and their related material systems, we propose five tenets for a new Material Ecology: glass, polymers, fibers, pigments, and cellular solids. Motivated to unite the grown and the made, we demonstrate how each material system and the technology invented to shape it embodies and advances Nature’s way while continuing to promote human progress.”

I see such an imaginative approach to science as an argument in favor of including arts with the science curriculum. The processes for creativity and scientific inquiry are very similar – except creativity is much more flexible in verification. When curiosity and ideas reign without stress over outcome, the mind is freer to wander and invent. The kind of creativity that envisions new uses for alternate materials is developed though practice, making connections, and often, no stress over the outcome.

Real invention comes from dreaming and imagining.

Papier Mache Style book coverWhich brings me to the Very Old technique for science activities – papier-mâché. You might think, oh please, we did that in kindergarten. However, the technique deserves a second look in this current world where sustainability and recycling are essential. It’s inexpensive to do. It makes use of throw-away materials – newspaper (if you can find any), brown paper bags, junk mail, plastic bottles, even cloth scraps and shred.

Papier-mâché first appeared in China c. second century AD, where it was used for warrior helmets and pots. It spread along trade routes to the middle east and Europe. Lacquering and papier mâché became a popular and highly-prized art form.

Today it can be used as a great craft technique to design and create scientific models for a better classroom experience. The possibilities are endless – 3D botanical illustrations, bones, insects, display boxes, buildings. Here are some photos of one of my previous classes where we studied historic castles and made models. The students also wrote an accompanying history of their chosen castle. And you can see the imaginative recycling that engaged the students.papier mache clock

There are many recipes for mâché. My all-purpose fallback is cheap white school glue mixed 3 parts glue, 1 part water. That recipe makes a structure that is rigid. If you want flexibility (such as a book cover or mask) use Sobo Glue. I have seen others use glue made with flour, joint compound, and other materials. You can purchase ready-made “paper clay,” which is a delight to work with – and expensive. The paper clay is good for small pieces.

My standby book has been Papier Mâché Style by Alex MacCormack. (Krause Publications, 1994). There are many books available as well as websites and videos. It’s a real smorgasbord of great ideas. You really need no art experience to use papier-mâché, but need to be willing to be adventurous and persistent. And yes, it is messy and needs time to dry. But the results are well worth it.

Student papier mache castle in process. Art and design are essential for communicating science. The best content in the world is useless if nobody reads or looks at it. That means it has to be visually enticing. It also generally invites students to participate in their own learning in a more active way.


Margo Lemieux is professor emerita at Lasell University, Newton, MA. She recently helped organize an exhibit and donation of fine art prints at the DaNang Museum of Fine Arts in Vietnam.

Middle Grade Writing Opportunities for the End of School

Merry and marvelous, the month of May! Congratulations to teachers, librarians, and parents of middle graders on the completion of another year of school. To everyone involved with education, amid the final projects, end-of-year grading, and graduation to whatever is next, the end of school brings a chance to reflect and draw conclusions about the year’s accomplishments. For middle graders, May might bring the end of a year spent with a beloved teacher or the end of their stint in a particular school building. These kinds of upcoming endings can prime students emotionally for reflection, journaling, and other writing activities in the classroom as the days wind down toward summer. Consider celebrating the end of the school year with some MG writing activities geared toward endings.

The End of the Story

Plenty of creative writing assignments allow students to work up a great first line…but since it’s the end of the year, challenge your MG writers to compose nothing but the last line of a piece of original fiction. They might start by filling in a simple activity sheet that lays out the story’s premise (genre, setting, protagonist, conflict, point of view, major themes, atmosphere). Notes in the form of brief phrases or bullet points might help them to fully envision this story they haven’t actually written. Students then compose the last line(s) in a way that both demonstrates the thematic undertones of the tale and brings a sense of closure.

You might encourage your middle graders by reviewing the great books you’ve covered over the year – read the last line aloud, take guesses the title, and have small groups recall the components of the book’s premise so that they are more confident in creating their own. (What a great opportunity to review the works your class has read and run through associated literary devices they will need the next year!) Once they recall the premise, point out that last lines often encapsulate characterization, theme, tone, and genre elements. Some good examples:

  • I’m Lanesha. Born with a caul. Interpreter of symbols and signs. Future engineer. Shining love. I’m Lanesha. I’m Mama Ya-Ya’s girl.    (Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes)
  • That’s what a real Florida boy would do. (Hoot, Carl Hiaasen)
  • …but always,/to know that/the world is not/meant to be feared,/and that water,/beautiful water,/will always mean/play.  (Odder, Katherine Applegate)
  • “Until then,” Annemarie told him, “I will wear it myself.”  (Number the Stars, Lois Lowry)


Great Endings of Long Ago

For the creative nonfiction writers in your group, a short writing project that explores significant historical endings might be of interest. Consider establishing research and investigation time into these and other history topics, then set writers to the task of composing brief paragraphs that sum up individual events leading to the end. Each student might contribute 1 or more paragraphs, each on a separate 5×8 index card; then students can work together to order and display their events timeline-style. Paragraphs could take on the style of a journalistic headliner or a fiction back cover blurb for practice in modeling specific writing approaches.

Some possibilities:

  • The end of the prehistoric period
  • The “Fall” of the Roman Empire
  • The end of the Revolutionary War
  • The surrender of Lee at Appomattox
  • The eradication of smallpox


Endings Mean New Beginnings

With sensitivity in mind for individual circumstances, consider allowing middle grade writers to brainstorm and journal about a local organization, business, or event that met its end in their lifetimes—for example, a favorite town diner that might have closed, or the dissolution of a town gathering during the pandemic—and accompanying fresh starts, such as a new popular restaurant or a reboot of a local festival. Writers also might brainstorm school groups or activities that shifted or changed over the course of their time in the building.

In another interesting angle, students write about the end of particular technologies that have grown obsolete just in their lifetimes and the resulting new tech. Expand this topic to a prediction exercise in which the MG imagination can speculate on current advances that may end within 1-3 years and the consequential new inventions that will take the place of the old.

Some ideas for technologies whose popularity and widespread use came to an end in the last ten years:

  • AOL Instant Messenger
  • Plasma TVs
  • Microsoft Kinect
  • Google Plus
  • Windows phone

No matter how you choose to reflect upon and celebrate the school year’s end, I hope your MG students find fun and fulfillment in their last writing projects, and I hope everyone’s summer is soon off to a safe, happy start!