Monthly Archives: November 2014

Building little engineers this holiday season

With the holidays fast approaching and Black Friday upon us today, here are some of the best engineering toys for kids.  Each of these toys develops spatial learning and problem solving skills that can grow and build with your child.  Empowering kids with the creation of real-world structures and electronics, children and adults alike can join in the fun.  And, especially, we need to make more of an effort to inspire young girls to engage in STEM subjects and I can tell you that I would have loved to have these toys when I was a kid!

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“Vaccines – Calling the Shots” is a powerful defense of vaccination

How the immune system works
Our immune cells see a dangerous pathogen and move to destroy it! Image Credit:NOVA

When I was one month old, my parents took me on my first trip to India to visit my grandparents and extended family. I was a healthy baby, but a vulnerable one as I had not received most of my vaccinations yet. Thanks to herd immunity – a result of most people around me on the flights, in the airports and in my extended family being vaccinated – I was safe. The recent outbreaks of easily preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough have frightened me because I think of all the people who cannot be vaccinated, including babies or people with compromised immune systems or allergies. They rely on the rest of us getting vaccinated to stay safe. Unfortunately, even when armed with facts, it can be frustrating to argue one’s case with members of the anti-vaccine movement. But sometimes a (moving) picture really does speak a thousand words.

This past summer, I served as a preliminary judge for the Biomedical Sciences category at the 2014 Jackson Hole Science Media Awards. When I saw that one of the finalists was entitled “Jabbed – Love, Fear and Vaccines,” I panicked, assuming that this documentary was going to promote the spurious link between autism and vaccines. I was pleasantly surprised to find that “Jabbed,” produced by the Australia-based Genepool Productions, excellently illustrates the science behind vaccines while also addressing fears about vaccination. The documentary went on to win the best Biomedical Sciences program at the Jackson Hole Science Media Awards (note: while the original “Jabbed” documentary is unavailable for viewing outside of Australia, you can view a trailer for the program here). Genepool Productions also collaborated with NOVA to produce an American version of this program, entitled “Vaccines – Calling the Shots,” which utilized some of the same footage in “Jabbed” and can be viewed in its entirety here (it originally aired in September). While I found the latter to be jumpier in its editing, it is also better tailored to an American audience. Both “Jabbed” and “Vaccines”  pack a lot of punch, interspersing interviews with prominent researchers, anecdotes from several different families from around the world and graphics to illustrate how the immune system works (if you have only two minutes to spare, watch this short video because it’s both adorable and accurate). While this could have ended up being an information overload, the stories are balanced to provide insights into not only the spread of infections, but also the spread of misinformation and fear.

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The Elements: A Visual Exploration

ElementsThe periodic table of elements is one of humankind’s iconic symbols. Despite the fact that you may only know the names and properties of several elements, you no doubt recognize the grid. Theodore Gray takes this famous table to a new artistic standard in his now world-renowned book The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. A bright and glossy black tome with a single element on each open 2-page spread, this is a great beginners resource for the visual depiction in high resolution photographs (if possible) and written description of each element. Accompanying each page are things in the world that are made up of the element. From common metals used in jewelry like silver and gold to rare earth metals like Lanthanum whose oxidation lights up camping lanterns, each element includes stories of how these elements are interesting to many more than just chemists.

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 10.02.51 AMIf you or your kids are more digitally stimulated, there is also an iPad app ($13.99) that includes each page of The Elements book in HD. Or visit for free interactive fun with the elements. On this website, you can also purchase posters, placemats, and cards to enhance your child’s chemistry IQ.

FullSizeRenderA great companion activity to The Elements, is this 1000 piece puzzle that I recently put together.  As you and your child add pieces to the puzzle, searching for similar-looking elements and browsing each name, symbol, and atomic number, I suggest looking up each element in the book or iPad app. When adding a new element to the puzzle, make sure to discuss what the element is and what it makes up in the world. Shout out, “I found Europium!” when adding this flaky rock to the puzzle, “And Europium creates fluorescence in light bulbs!”

Who knew chemistry could be so much fun!