Capturing Wild Yeast

My first loaf of bread. It’s not just about the kid’s projects. I’ve started one of my own.🙂

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on April 13, 2016.

I have never been much of a cook or a baker, but I greatly admire those who have these skills. While I can see that cooking can be an art, it’s not my go-to creative outlet. But I wish I were better at it, and for a long time, I have wanted to learn how to bake bread…beautiful, healthy, aroma-rich bread.

My bread-baking goal became a reality recently after my family watched a series on Netflix called Cooked. The book of the same title, written by Michael Pollan, inspired this series. Pollan has made a living writing about food, and while I haven’t read any of his books, this series was fascinating. It had a lot to do with the history of food and how different cultures cook and find food. One of the episodes, titled “Air,” was about bread.

Bread baking has been around since before recorded history. No doubt some early baker neglected his or her flour and water mixture for several hours and came back to find it bubbling. That is, it began to ferment, or it became a sourdough starter, which is what we call it now.

It probably took many accidents before humans realized this chemical process could yield some tasty bread. Then it took centuries before scientists discovered what was happening. Later still, someone created the commercial yeast that is used in all the breads you buy at the store. (Artisan bakers who use natural yeast will tell you that not only are the breads we’re accustomed to bland and tasteless, they aren’t as healthy either.)

Before I watched this documentary, I had no idea about this process or that I could do it at home. By setting out a bowl of flour and water for several days, I could capture wild yeast and bacteria (two of the microorganisms that are always floating around in the air we breathe) to make my own sourdough starter. I knew I had to try it.

If you want to try it, there are dozens of tutorials online to help you, but it really was as easy as putting 1 part flour (most bakers recommend unbleached all purpose flour) to 1 part water in a bowl and mixing them together. I covered mine with a thin kitchen cloth and put it by a window that I opened for several hours each day. You can also leave it on a porch. Everyday, I stirred the mixture vigorously to beat the air into it. After two or three days, I began to see bubbles in it.

Since I had never done this before, I wasn’t sure what to look for. I knew if it started to smell bad, I’d need to throw it out and start again, but the only smell it gave off was a sweet, fermented smell. I knew it must be working, but I had no idea how long it would take. After another day or two, I added more flour and water to the mixture, and I continued to do this everyday. After about seven days, after much wondering if I was getting it right, I knew I had the yeast. It was very bubbly and it had a smell but not a bad one.

Now that I have my own yeast, the bread baking has commenced. Unfortunately, I have yet to bake that perfect loaf. From everything I read, learning to bake bread takes many trials and errors. Each loaf I make seems a little closer to the real deal, although I’m happy to say my husband likes what I’ve made. Though they’re not perfect, they are edible.

In my research I have learned that every baker who uses a sourdough starter bakes his or her bread differently. This could be extremely frustrating, but no, I refuse to get frustrated. (Okay, at least most of the time.) I am in this for the long haul. I’m going to figure out how to get that perfect loaf with the big holes. And hopefully it’s going to taste good too. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Nature Watch: Thrust Fault

I’ve been really excited to share this photo with you. It may not look like much at first, but it’s actually an image of a thrust fault. If you look in the middle, near the top of this cliff, you’ll see how the rock on the right kind of looks like a wave, and it’s pushing up over the rock on the left. That’s the fault!

When we went to Cloudland Canyon State Park, we took along Roadside Geology of Georgia by Pamela J. W. Gore and William Witherspoon. Cloudland is a haven for geology enthusiasts, and I’m going to do a separate post with all my “rock” photos taken in Cloudland.

This photo was not taken in the park. This thrust fault is located along I-59 near Rising Fawn, Georgia, and yes, we stopped our car on the highway, and I got out to take it. The reason we did that is because there’s a picture in the book of this same fault, and we thought it would be really cool to find it. Since it took some effort to find it, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to take a photograph!

There are different kinds of faults, depending on which way the earth moves and the angle of the fault. Click here for a definition of a thrust fault and a flash animation of how the earth moves for a thrust fault.

I wish I could explain more about the geology of this region, but I’m not a geologist, and I’m just barely beginning to grasp this wonderful subject myself. I highly recommend the Roadside series. There is one for almost every state!

Project-based Homeschooling: Robotics

Over this past year, my eight-year-old (now nine-year-old!) became increasingly interested in robotics. The first robot he learned about was Jibo because my husband was watching videos about this little gadget that might someday be a standard household item. My husband learned about it through all the tech sites and podcasts he listens to, and he showed it to us because he thought it was cool.

Well, my son had never seen a robot before and suddenly he wanted to know more.

We began to watch YouTube videos about all kinds of robots that have been invented and also those that are still being developed. I found it fascinating too. (Did you know there is a hotel in Japan being run entirely by robots?)

My son was already an avid Lego fan. He has sat for six hours at a stretch putting together what looks like to me a complicated and tedious Lego kit. He has been building toys and other cardboard creations for a very long time, and he does indeed seem to have an “engineer’s mind.” (So unlike his mom and dad!) We wanted to support our son’s interest in robotics, so my husband did some research about robotics kits, and we learned about the Mindstorm EV3 kit and some others. But it was expensive, and we weren’t sure just how interested our son was in robotics yet.

Technically, this was my son’s first robot.

To help gauge our son’s interest, we took him to the 2014 Maker Faire in Decatur, GA last October. We knew he’d get to see some robots up close and maybe play with them too. Indeed, there were lots of robots at the fair, and my son was able to try some out. He had a blast.

While we were at the fair, my husband and I took the opportunity to ask some Georgia Tech students what they recommended for young kids interested in robotics. They mentioned the Lego robotics kits and one other one. Since our son was already familiar with Legos, the Mindstorm kit became a good choice for us. Indeed, many of the robots at the fair were made with Legos!

We also learned about hacker spaces and maker groups while we were at the fair and that there are a couple of these places located near us. This is not something we have tried out yet, but it may be another possibility to try someday.

It was around this time that we discovered the series Making Stuff by Nova and hosted by David Pogue. There are four episodes, and we all enjoyed them, but they enamored my eight-year-old, and he has watched them all multiple times. The episode Making Stuff Wilder is his favorite because it’s about bioengineering. I can see where my son’s love of nature and animals crosses with his love of robotics in this field. The first time we watched it, while they were explaining some robot inspired by nature, my son leaned forward in his seat, pointed at the T.V. and said loudly, “I WANT TO DO THAT!”

Ever since, he has said he wants to be an engineer. He also said once that he doesn’t think he wants to be just an engineer. We have let him know that many bio-engineers spend most of their day inside a building with no windows. It’s something to consider. But engineering is a huge field with many possibilities, and as he develops this and other skills, such as pottery and piano, you never know where his interests will intersect or compliment each other. So we feel it’s our duty to support this interest in whatever way we can for however long it lasts.

We wanted to get him the Mindstorm EV3 for Christmas, but since it was an expensive gift, we asked my in-laws and mother, if they might want to contribute instead of giving him a toy. They did. (Thank you!!!) I think it was certainly a gift that will have a longer shelf life than anything else we could have given him. He has been extremely responsible with the robot, taking care to keep the pieces separate from his other Lego kits, and he was also okay with receiving very little else that holiday.

Though I was worried he might lose interest in it over time, he hasn’t. Over the course of the year, he has built every robot whose instructions came with the software, and he has built a few others developed by Lego fans. He has watched YouTube videos to learn about the programming, and he has experimented with making his own programming for the robots. It’s not something he works on everyday or even every week, but he always goes back to it, and we’ve amassed quite a nice collection of photographs of his work.

My son’s latest robot plays a “Which tire is the ball under?” game with you.

It got to a point when I felt he needed more instruction, and we weren’t finding easy tutorials online anymore. I wanted to get him into a robotics class. Well, I searched in vain for weeks, and I couldn’t find anything closer than Atlanta, which is a bit too far for us to travel for a class. Finally one day my husband sat with me one afternoon and we did all kinds of Google searches. That’s when we found Engineering for Kids of Northeast Georgia. At that time, they didn’t have a robotics class, but we decided their STEM Club would be a good a match for our son, and later I was happy to find out they were doing a robotics summer camp (close to us!). So my son recently attended that, and he was happy to have one of his friends in the camp with him too.

So this is where we are so far with his love of robotics. He just turned nine-years-old, and his interest is still strong and doesn’t seem to be going away. We’ll continue to support it any way we can, and I’ll be sure to let you know how it’s going too.

Engineering for Kids

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on June 17, 2015. 

It’s no secret that the United States has been pushing more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in education. Though I’m not sure I agree with all the motives for that, and I certainly don’t want to see cuts in the arts due to it, I’m glad there are more opportunities for kids to learn and explore these areas. Many kids thrive with hands-on learning, so there should be more of that.

My eight-year-old is one of those kids who seems to be on a track for a STEM career. Sure, he could change, but when I was his age, I was already writing poetry. (He’s so not me. Thank goodness.) He likes to build things, and he loves science. He’s crazy about Legos and Minecraft. He enjoys art and has even written stories, but the passion isn’t there. His preferred craft is pottery, which, of course, has a lot to do with using one’s hands and building too.

We have done everything we can to support his interests despite the fact that my husband and I come from a business and liberal arts background. (It’s been a steep learning curve for us.) Last year I looked in vain for classes within driving distance to support my son’s love of robotics. He’s learned a lot at home, but there’s only so much more we can do here.

CO2 powered dragster races

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 click above image to go to video

For these reasons, I jumped for joy when I found Engineering for Kids of Northeast Georgia, a franchise that is serving Barrow, Dawsonville, Forsyth, Gwinnett, Hall and Jackson counties. Engineering for Kids provides programming for kids ages 4 to 14 that introduces STEM education. They go into the schools, offer after-school programs, homeschool programs, camps, birthday parties, you name it.

This past spring, I enrolled my son in their STEM Club Saturdays that was being held once a month next door to INK Musuem in Gainesville. He had a great time making a CO2 powered dragster, a model of a roller coaster, and a bottle rocket.

Building a scale model of a roller coaster and learning about kinetic and potential energy in the process.

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bottle rocket. click above image to see video.

The owner of the franchise, Jeffrey Butler, told me that he was working on securing a facility in Barrow County for his summer camps, and he did. They will be at the Sims Academy of Innovation & Technology this July.

They will have a “Pirate Academy” and “Junior Robotics: Adventure Stories” for ages PreK-2nd grades. At the “Apprentice/Master” Level (3rd-8th grade), they are offering an “Out of This World Space Camp” and a “Robotics: Mission to Mars” camp. They offer discounts, if your child wants to stay for a full day and participate in both camps.

Butler says they plan to offer a year-round Engineering for Kids Club in Winder in the fall. He said they started this last year at the Lanier Technical College Winder-Barrow campus. They will release their 2015/16 schedule of classes in the summer, and they plan to do an Open House/Customer Appreciation event at their Gainesville campus in early August.

If you’d like to learn more about Engineering for Kids, go to engineeringforkids.com. For the Northeast Georgia home, see https://engineeringforkids.com/location/northeastga/home

My New Favorite Bird

This photo is courtesy of katieb50 via a creative commons license.
This photo is courtesy of katieb50 via a creative commons license.

Note: This column appeared in the April 8, 2015 issue of the Barrow Journal.

I am adding a new bird to my list of favorites, and it may seem a strange choice to you. Most people don’t list “crow” as one of their favorite birds. Up until now, my favorites have been a toss up between cardinal, bluebird, owl, egret or blue heron. I mean, really, it’s hard to pick a favorite bird when they are all so magnificent, isn’t it?

But recently my family watched a PBS Nature documentary titled “A Murder of Crows.” A group of crows is called a “murder” probably because of old folklore that associated crows with death. Crows are scavengers, like ravens, and both these blackbirds have had a bad rap. Actually, they are both extremely intelligent and may be some of the smartest animals on earth. But ravens don’t live around here, so I’m going to stick to crows for this column.

Scientists are studying crows and learning quite a bit about them. I was impressed to watch one experiment when a researcher put a piece of food out of reach from a crow, but he left a tool nearby that the bird could use to retrieve it, if he could figure out how to use it. However, the crow had to use another tool in order to reach the tool that would get the food. The bird used both the tools and got the food easily.

That was impressive by itself, but then the researcher gave the crow an additional challenge. He tied the first stick to a rope and hung it down from a perch that the crow sat on. This way, the crow had three steps he had to take to get the food. He had to pull the string up with his beak and retrieve the first tool, use it to get the second tool, and then use the second tool to get the food. The researcher hypothesized that the crow wouldn’t be able to do that. But the crow did it! This is more impressive when you consider that even chimpanzees can’t do this three-step process.

Observations have also revealed that a crow’s social structure is similar to humans. They mate for life, and families live in close proximity, continuing to help each other throughout their lives. A baby crow might stay with its parents for up to five years and even help raise its younger siblings. (Most birds are on their own as soon as they leave the nest.)

Crows can congregate in roosts with thousands of other crows, especially when they find food such as a cornfield (farmers will not like crows), but individual crows will come and go from their parent’s nest. Some may travel far and visit occasionally. Others may stay and live nearby.

Another interesting part of the documentary was the research done on how crows can recognize and remember human faces. If a human or other animal has threatened or hurt them, they will use the same distress call each time they see them to alert other crows in the area.

Scientists in the documentary conducted extensive experiments to show that parents of crows may even pass on knowledge of dangerous people to their children, and the children will use the same distress call when they see the threatening person, even after leaving their parent’s nest.

I don’t know about you, but learning about crows has elevated them in my mind. We see them all the time in our neighborhood, but I took them for granted. They weren’t as interesting to me as the beautiful songbirds, but now when I see a pair poking around my yard for some food, I’m fascinated. These intelligent birds have earned my respect.

Project-based Homeschooling: Tardigrades

photo courtesy of Don Loarie via flickr creative commons https://flic.kr/p/kbHNe3
photo courtesy of Don Loarie via https://flic.kr/p/kbHNe3 This image is the closest to what we saw through our microscope.

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, October 8, 2014.

My family and I have been enjoying watching the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which is a documentary series that explains the principles upon which science is based. It’s a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. It uses storytelling and special effects such as Sagan did in the first series, but it’s all updated, and it’s a beautiful show.

In the second episode my family learned about tardigrades, and my eight-year-old became very excited. Tardigrades, or “water bears,” have to be one of the most amazing creatures on earth, and they are everywhere, but my family had no knowledge of them until now. This is because they are only .5mm – 1.2mm in length. They are big enough to see under a low-power microscope, but not big enough to notice when we’re walking through the woods on one of our hikes.

What is amazing about tardigrades is that they can live in conditions that would kill most other living creatures on earth. They can live in freezing temperatures (just above absolute zero) or in boiling water. They can withstand pressures that are far greater than that of the deepest trenches in the ocean. They can go up to ten years without food or water, and they have survived the vacuum of outer space. Because of these abilities, they have survived all five of Earth’s mass extinctions.

Their secret is cryptobiosis, which slows down the tardigrade’s metabolic processes. Without water, according to wired.com, “it can dehydrate to 3 percent of its normal water content in what is called desiccation, becoming a husk of its former self.” When you add water, they come back to life.

See why we were amazed to learn about these tiny creatures? My eight-year-old looked them up online, so we were able to view some photos and film taken of them under high-powered microscopes. We read more about them, and we also learned that it’s easy to find tardigrades in our backyard, so my son wanted to do that too.

We learned in Cosmos that they live in moss or lichen, but according to the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College (SERC), tardigrades can be found almost everywhere. The center also said there are over 900 described species (though I have read over 1,500 species on another site), and they have been found in the mountains, ocean, rain forests and the Antarctic. That site also mentions that “Live tardigrades have been regenerated from dried moss kept in a museum for over 100 years!”

First my son wanted to gather some moss in the backyard, which we did, and we looked at it under our microscope – no tardigrades. So then he wanted to look up “what is the best kind of moss to find tardigrades in.” We tried that and found something more helpful – complete instructions on how to find and care for tardigrades.

We learned that we would probably have a better chance of finding tardigrades in lichen and that once you get a sample, you need to soak it in distilled or rain water for several hours or overnight. My son gathered some moss and two small containers of lichen and let it soak in rainwater for 24 hours.

The next day my eight-year-old wanted to look at the moss water first. You’re supposed to squeeze out the moss and then put the water in a shallow dish such as a petri dish and then spend about 15 minutes looking at it under the microscope.

We found nothing in the water with the moss, but when we looked at the water with the lichen, we found some tardigrades almost immediately.

We were surprised to see that they are translucent. What we saw was a reddish outline around their body. We could make out their eight legs, but we couldn’t see the claws. We also saw their tubular mouth. My son said they looked like little, chubby caterpillars to him.

We also found all sorts of other wiggly things in there too! We haven’t identified those other creatures yet, but I think one is a nematode, which looks like a worm, and tardigrades prey on them.

I left the microscope and the tardigrades on our table so that my son can observe them for a few days before we release them back into the yard. My son is fascinated with the microscopic life in this tiny dish, and now he says he wants to learn more about bacteria. You never know where this might lead.

Project-based Homeschooling: A Mushroom Project Teaches Mama When to Let Go

mushroom project-1Last year when my seven-year-old told me he wanted to learn about and grow mushrooms, I was excited. This was something I could sink my teeth into. Though I’m a novice, I love plants and gardening, and mushrooms fascinate me. We see so many cool ones around here, and they never fail to excite me. My boys love looking at them too. So I was looking forward to learning about mushrooms alongside my son.

I had visions of learning how to identify mushrooms, creating a mushroom poster, and learning how to grow them at home. But I was a good PBH Mama. I didn’t mention any of that. 

Instead, I sat down with my son and asked him what he wanted to know. This is what he said and how I wrote it down in our project journal:

Mushrooms — “I want to grow them in the house or in a terrarium.”

  • Where are their spores?
  • Are they made of spores?
  • What are they made of?
  • How do they grow?

“My idea is to crumble mushroom into a terrarium.”

We’ll experiment with layers of dirt and scraps from woods. Mushroom from outside, but we need to identify.

1) Learn about mushrooms –> books from library

2) My idea to use terrarium. (I gave him an old venus flytrap terrarium we had.)

Don’t worry if that doesn’t totally make sense to you. It doesn’t make sense to me either. I need to take better notes!

We checked out some books about mushrooms from the library, and when we got them home, my son enjoyed looking at the mushrooms in the field guides, but he wasn’t as interested in listening to me read about mushrooms. Despite the questions he asked, he mostly wanted to grow mushrooms. I knew his idea to crumble mushrooms into the terrarium would not work because I had looked up some videos on how to grow mushrooms for my own knowledge, and I showed him at least one video too.

I realized two things. 1) He wanted to do it his way, and I just needed to let him try that, and 2) growing mushrooms isn’t simple, but letting a seven-year-old try out his way of growing mushrooms is simple, and that’s what I needed to do anyway.

So, over a month or so, we tried some different things. I found a few notes I took in our project journal:

Sept. 13, 2013

He wants to chop mushrooms smaller and put under dirt. (Current project is very smelly.)

Later, I tried to sum up the few things we did in the journal. (I’m not very good at keeping this journal on a daily or even weekly basis, but I do manage to update it now and then.)

Oct. 8, 2013

We took old carnivorous plant terrarium with its dirt and added wood chips. (Because the seven-year-old knew that mushrooms needed a substrate.)

1) Bought button mushrooms, cut them up, put them on top of wood chips. We kept dome on and left it on front porch — they just rotted. We also put some of the mushrooms on leaf litter in the woods – nothing happened.

2) Seven-year-old found mushrooms with yellow caps in yard. [Since we’re not sure which mushrooms are poisonous and which are not, we never touch wild mushrooms with our hands. My son managed to gather these using two small sticks.] He put that in the pot and left dome off. They were gone in the morning. We think squirrels got them!

3) We bought Bunapi mushrooms at Dekalb Farmer’s Market. 2 days in refrigerator. We put them in terrarium, left dome on, and we’re keeping it inside house. Mist with water.

Unfortunately, my notes stop there, but nothing ever happened with those mushrooms either.  Eventually the terrarium ended up back in the garage, and my son’s other interests kept taking precedence.

However, something serendipitous happened! During the summer we were given some sundew seeds to try to grow. Remember my son’s carnivorous plant project? We kept them in a little cup with another plastic cup over it because it needed to stay wet and humid inside. Though the sundew never grew, we did find this one day when we were checking them! It was unintentional, but we did grow a mushroom!

For a long time, I thought this project was a bust. I felt like I did something wrong because he didn’t pursue it further, but actually I did ask him about it, and he didn’t seem interested in pursuing it further. That’s actually the whole point in project-based homeschooling: you let the child decide when he’s finished with a project. As I began looking back over this year to create an end-of-the-year review and write some of these end-of-the-year blog posts, I realized that we did, indeed, do a mushroom project. It just didn’t look like how I envisioned it would be.

Trying something and failing at it is one of the best ways of learning. Deciding not to pursue it further is a worthy decision. Though my son may not be able to identify the mushrooms that grow in our yard, and he doesn’t know how to grow mushrooms, he has actually learned quite a lot about mushrooms. He’s learned everything he’s wanted to learn about them. At least for now.

When I realized I needed to write this blog post, I thought I would ask my son one more time. He was standing next to my desk as I was looking at some of the photos we had taken of his mushroom experiments.

“Do you remember how you wanted to grow mushrooms?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to do anything more with that?”

“No.” A definite shake of the head. He walked away.

As I’ve written, learning is like a chain-link fence. We build our knowledge one link at a time; it expands and grows in different directions. My son has several links in his knowledge about mushrooms. If it ever matters to him again, he can build onto that knowledge, but it won’t mean much unless he wants to learn about it.

I think it’s neat that he had an idea, and he tried it. That’s what I want to encourage. Questions. Curiosity. Getting excited about attempting things he doesn’t know. 

As for me, I know that if I want to, I could do my own mushroom project. I could learn how to identify and grow them and share my interest with my boys, but as it turns out, all I really want to do is take photographs of them. So, for fun, I’m sharing my photographs of mushrooms here with you in this slideshow. Aren’t they beautiful and amazing?!

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What are you learning about today?