Secular Science Resources for Homeschoolers


August 2015

A few good books

These series are books my boys have read themselves. I’ve read a few of them, but not all of them.

benedict societyThe Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart is the first of four book, five if you count the book of puzzles, The Mysterious Benedict Society: Mr. Benedict’s Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas, and Curious Conundrums.  I think my kids were around 10 years old when they read this series.  I read the first one and it was quite fun.  Kind of like Harry Potter where these kids with unusual talents get together to fight ‘evil’.  What’s nice about this series is that teaches critical thinking and problem solving as it shows the kids working their way through the mysteries and puzzles.  My older son really enjoyed the book of puzzles as well.

last apprenticeMy older son has read all of the The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney.  In the UK, the title of the series is the Spook’s Apprentice.  The Seventh Son, which is very loosely based on these books, came out a year or so ago,  but we haven’t seen it because the reviews were so bad and the trailer alone made it clear it wasn’t the same story as the books.  The main character, 12 yr old Thomas is apprenticed to a spook – who fights and captures witches and other ‘evil spirits’.    These are pretty easy and quick reads so if you have a reluctant reader these might be a good choice. I read 5 or 6 of these and found them entertaining, Amazon says they’re good for 10 and up.

artemis fowlMy younger son has recently finished reading the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer.  I haven’t read any of these but my son really enjoyed them.  The main character, Artemis Fowl is a 12 year old criminal mastermind and my son says, “Its a futuristic fantasy with fairies and dwarves, with laser guns….”, sounds like a good book for boys.   There are 8 books in the series and Amazon rates them for ages 10 and up.


Big History 002 – Cosmic Calendar

notebookToday was our first Big History class and it went really well. We had a lot of stuff to do and we actually got through it all. As kids came in the door they started decorating their composition notebooks with duct tape.  This should help make them a little sturdier and makes them easy to identify.  We’re going to do a lot of interactive notebook stuff so at the end of the year they should have a nice ‘textbook’ of their own making for Big History.  I had a couple of rolls of patterned duct tape and a couple of the kids brought some too, so we had a nice selection.    Each student got to pick from an assortment of ribbons to glue in a bookmark, and next week we’l add elastic to hold the books closed.  I had everyone title the first or second page in their book as Table of Contents so we can keep track of each project that goes in the notebooks.

Galactic addressAs kids finished setting up their notebooks I had them find the stack of cards with a satellite image of their house/neighborhood on it.  Then they took the stack and glued them in their notebook so you could lift each flap to see the next picture. Each card zooms a bit further from their house: Neighborhood, City, Valley (included all the cities the students are from), State, Country, Earth, Solar System, Milk Way.  On each card the kids drew a dot, an arrow, or put a little sticky dot to show their location. This activity is called Galactic Address and you can find at the Lawrence Hall of Science website, or on the Universe at Your Fingertips DVD (I bought this DVD and its worth every penny, TONS of great activities).  I changed the activity a little bit by putting in an image of the Milky Way and used google maps to print out city maps and the kids houses.  I have 12 kids in my class and most are sets of siblings so it wasn’t too much work.  I think the original activity has you put the School as the final address but since we’re homeschoolers, we used our homes!

cosmic calendar bigThe second activity we did was the Cosmic Calendar, which can also be found on the Universe at Your Fingertips DVD, but can also be found for free here.  This idea originally came from Carl Sagan.  Trying to wrap our minds around 13.7 billion years is very hard to do, so we put all of time on a single 12 month calendar, with the Big Bang occurring on the first second of  January 1st and present day at midnight on Dec 31st.  Now, where would the other big events lie?  First I split the class into groups of 3 and gave them a stack of cards with different
events;  big bang, first life, formation of Milky Way, formation of solar system, etc and asked them to put them in chronological order.  cosmic calendar fold Once they had the order we tried to figure out what month each event would happen in and taped it to the right day on the calendar.  I had a clothes line strung up across the living room with the calendar pinned to it (see photo).    Once we had the big Cosmic Calendar completed they each made a small folding one to put in their notebooks.  I printed them so there were 3 months on a page & trimmed the pages before class, so the kids just had to tape the pages together and accordion fold them.  I had a bunch of stickers they could use for some events (star stickers for for 1st stars formed, dinosaur stickers, etc) and some just drew pictures.

Next week each student, or pair of students, is going to bring an origin story to share with the class.  The Big History Project has some on their website the kids can read, and there is a huge collection of mythology at the Mythology Un-Textbook site.  There also some animated shorts of mythology at The Big Myth website/app.

Homeschool Physics 002 – metric units and measurements

nocussing unitsToday was the first homeschool physics class, and with most first classes in science we went over some basics.  We discussed scientific notation, metric units, significant figures and uncertainty.  I started by showing the two cartoons you see here.  I love the No Cussing! sign (found on this blog – this blog has since been deleted)  because we don’t really have any rules in our house about cussing. Nobody gets in trouble for cussing… or I would be in time out all day.The USA is one of the last countries to keep using these archaic units and it drives me nuts.  We’ve had a meter stick in our house since the kids could walk, maybe even before then, and we have always measured things in meters or centimeters.  But when all the street signs are in miles not kilometers, its hard to understand what a kilometer means.    drew_sigfigsBut we need to have a feel for these other units so we went over how to compare them with the ones used in USA.  We started with the meter stick, which is just a bit longer than a yard, and for first order estimates you can just remember a meter is approximately a yard or 3 feet.  So now you know a board that is 12 feet long is roughly 4 meters long.  Which is longer a kilometer (km) or a mile?  A mile is longer by quite a bit,  there’s roughly 1.6 km in every mile (1.609 to be exact), so if you’re driving in Europe and the sign says 15 km to the next rest area, you know you’ve got about 10 miles to go, you’re just looking for a rough estimate you can use 1.5 km ~ 1mi.

The other unit that causes a lot of confusion is the kilogram (kg) or gram (g), mainly because its a unit of MASS, not weight.  But if someone asks for your weight in Europe they are expecting you to give an answer in kg, so really, they are asking for your mass.  Mass is the amount of matter that makes up an object. Its the same amount of stuff, no matter where you are. Your mass is the same on Earth, the moon, Mars, everywhere.   But your WEIGHT is the force you are exerting on the scale when you step on it and that depends on the force of gravity, so that will be different if you step on the scale on the surface of the moon, or any other planet.   In science we make a very clear distinction between mass and weight but in everyday life, they are treated the same so its one of the concepts students can have a lot of trouble with.  We’ll get into mass versus weight, later in the class when we discuss gravity but today I just wanted them to know that their mass in kg is roughly half their weight in cubes  1 lb = 0.454 kg, so if you weigh 120 lb then you have a mass of about 60 kg.  A 5 lb bag of sugar is roughly 2.5 kg, etc.
If you have these little math manipulatives around the house, they are 1 cm on a side and have a mass of 1 gram each, so you can actually use them in a balance to find the mass of other objects.  Frequently if we read something is 5 grams I’l remind the kids about the cubes and say that’s the same mass as 5 of those little cubes.  Just gives them a frame of reference.

OK, so on to the lab activity.  To get across the concept of uncertainty in measurement and how to report measurements, the students were asked to measure the length of my living room 3 different ways.  The first, was just to estimate the length without moving from the table.  I placed a meter stick on the floor and they had to estimate how long it was, to the nearest tenth of a meter.  Estimates ranged from 4.5 to 6.5 meters – a pretty big spread in numbers.  Next the students measured the length of hand spanthe floor using their hands, what’s called a hand span – spread out your fingers as much as possible and use the length from the tip of your pinky to the tip of your thumb for your measuring unit.  Answers ranged from 25.2 to 36.2 hand spans.  We discussed sources of error – hand not being spread out the same each time, repositioning the hand each time and not going in a straight line across the floor.  We also discussed how  everyone’s hands are different lengths and that would cause some differences in the answers.  We made a histogram of our results, but with only 8 students, its not very useful.  A bigger class would make for a nicer distribution.    Finally, they used meter sticks to measure the length of the floor to the nearest millimeter (mm).  Now we got much better results, with a range of 5.600 – 5.730 m, but with 5 of them being within a few mm (thousandths of a m) of the average of 5.646 m.  Now is that average of 5.646 m the true length of the floor?  Would you bet $50 that it is exact?   Probably not, we still had sources of error, repositioning the meter stick each time, still have trouble going straight across the floor (they couldn’t put it against a wall, too much furniture in the way).  But we could say with a lot of confidence that the length of the wall is between 5.62 and 5.66 m because most of our measurements fell in that range.  So I would report that the length of the floor is 5.64 + 0.02 m, where the plus/minus 0.02 m is what we call the uncertainty in the measurement.

We still had a bit of time at the end of class so I gave them the homework and everyone completed it in class.  I gave them the first few  worksheets on scientific notation from this handout I found on the web, and this one on significant figures.  I liked these worksheets because they had pretty good explanations in front of them so you can use them as a stand alone handout.

Next week the real fun begins when we start playing with the air track and learning about velocity.  Students were told to read the first few pages of the Cartoon Guide to Physics if they have it, and then Chapter 2 of Light and Matter.

First day of school?

San Diego ZooOfficially our school year started almost two weeks ago (according to the charter school), but the 10th grader was away at camp and unless we have our weekly science classes we really don’t feel like school has started yet.  Local schools started today and while the ‘regular’ kids had to go sit inside, mine were running around the San Diego Zoo with their dad…. I think that’s a much better way to start the school week.  The day before they were exploring the Midway Aircraft Carrier.

campingLast year we were camping, hiking, watching bats and enjoying amazing views of the Milky Way on the first day of school.  We had hoped to do that again this year, but the drought and hence the fire danger is so bad here in California, it just wasn’t worth the risk, hence the short trip to San Diego instead.

Tomorrow science class begins so I suppose I should go prepare for ‘school’.

A Princess of Mars

Science classes start next week, until then,  I thought I would continue sharing some books we love because if you read as much as we do, you are probably always on the lookout for good books as well.Book-1-A-Princess-Of-Mars-1

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs is the first of a long a series of fantasy/sci-fi books that take place on Mars.  My son and I both read a dozen of these.  You may have seen the movie John Carter a few years ago… it was LOOSELY based on these books.  To be honest I had trouble enjoying the movie the first time I saw it because I was expecting it to be more like the books.    In A Princess of Mars, John Carter is a Civil War veteran who falls asleep in a cave on Earth, and wakes up on the planet Mars. His adventures start right away as he’s captured by one of the many species (see 4 armed green creature on book cover) living on Mars.  I had to laugh when I saw this book cover because the princess is not the helpless thing depicted here.  She kicks some ass and has some sass.  I found the ‘gods’ of these books very amusing.  There are multiple levels of hierarchy on Mars and the ‘gods’ of one species ends up to be just a more advanced race, taking advantage of the simpler race and enslaving them with the promise of a better afterlife.  My son and I had some interesting discussions onfree books app religion while we read these.  They do start to get a bit far fetched as you get to the last books in the series but they are a fun read and you can get most for free since they’re older books.  The first book was published in 1912.
We read most of them on the Free Books app by Digital Press Publishing on our iPads.    My son was around 12 years old when he read them.

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George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (