Mar 27

Hands Down – It’s Time to Catch Up

image of anatomical drawings of hands from Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks

Gotta’ hand it to Leonardo da Vinci – he knew his anatomy! Wish I had respected mine while on a knitting frenzy this fall.

I never imagined how busy the beginning of 2013 would turn out to be – but life has a way of surprising us. (So why am I surprised that it’s the end of  March already?) Lately, the hectic rush has been full of writerly excitement: A stint as guest blogger at MiddleWeb, a rich resource of goodies and thought-provoking ideas for middle school educators; some great book news; a couple of conferences, and a long-deferred author visit coming up.All that and – egads! – many visits to a hand therapist to see what we can do about this gnawing numbness and terrible tingling I’ve been having in my hands…Hence the image that leads this blog post. Let this be a lesson to all writers -and knitters- out there: Watch your posture. Take breaks. And don’t put off getting thee to a doctor when things start to go awry.

Guest Blogging Stint

How come it is so much easier to blog for someone else’s site? Anne Jolly usually writes the Imagineering blog for MiddleWeb. When she asked me to write about the importance of a type of engineering lesson that the Engaging Youth through Engineering program calls “Launchers”, I eagerly agreed. See the post and find out all about how Engaging Youth through Engineering – with which I am involved through my work with Blue Heron STEM Education – helps to launch middle schoolers into the exciting world of engineering in teams that really work. While you are at it, drop a comment at the site.


Random House Audio's Audio Version of A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE


Book News

A Black Hole is NOT a Hole will soon be released as an audiobook, thanks to Random House Audio. Can’t wait to hear it!

Speaking of hearing things, it was exciting earlier this year to hear that the book was named a 2013 ALA Notable. See the whole list here. Congratulations to my fellow writing group member Brian Lies, who illustrated another book on the list, More. If you haven’t seen it, be sure to check it out. Working with I.C. Springman’s spare text about a creature who collects perhaps a bit too much, Brian has created a real treasure here. Watch for how the little details help tell the bigger story.

poster advertising the speed dating event at MSLA conference, with author signatures

What a great idea! Speed Dating for Librarians and Authors.

A Couple of Conferences

Who knew dating could be so fun? On March 2, I participated in an Author Speed Dating event with participants from the Massachusetts School Librarians Association. Other attending authors were Melissa Stewart, John Lechner, Leslea Newman, and Laura Harrington. What an honor to be in the same room with them! Organized by Sharon Shaloo, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Center for the Book, this lively event involved each author in a series of 10-minute small-group interviews.

At the start of each segment, an author would sit at a table of MSLA participants, briefly say a few words to kick things off, and then answer any questions that came from the group. What a great adventure. Not one prone to nervousness in public engagements, I found myself incredibly keyed up, but the librarians were gracious, warm, and welcoming. (Just like my librarian at Dunn’s Corners Elementary School in Westerly, RI, in the early 70’s. Although I cannot remember her name, I remember the warmth and gentleness with which she always greeted me, and can still picture her standing near the poetry selections, helping me make my choice for the week.)

I was too keyed up, in fact, to think to take pictures, but photographer Richard Curran has graciously shared some of his.  You can find some photos from the entire conference at the conference pictures web page. The dating scene begins about three quarters of the way down the first page.

Here I am on my first date! (Well, I think it was actually my third by then...) Someone has the English version of A Black Hole is NOT a Hole...but check out the Korean version on the left!

Here I am on my first date! (Well, I think it was actually my third by then…) Someone has the English version of A Black Hole is NOT a Hole…but check out the Korean version on the left!

I am not the best at networking, but guess who I bumped into at the end of the week? Sharon Shaloo and Leslea Newman – this time at the Hynes Convention Center, which was home to 11,000 writers attending the annual conference and book fair of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Overwhelming? You bet. Inspirational? Sure thing. But now I’m ready to mellow out a bit.

What? No candlelight? Ah, well...Laura Harrington is enchanting the folks in the background to the left, and Melissa Stewart is charming another group in the far left background. John Lechner casts a spell in the back right. In just a few minutes, the authors will switch tables.

What? No candlelight? Ah, well…Laura Harrington is enchanting the folks in the background to the left, and Melissa Stewart is charming another group in the far left background. John Lechner casts a spell in the back right. In just a few minutes, the authors will switch tables.

Time for Some Fun

Recently, after a cancellation due to inclement weather several storms ago, Hillside Elementary in Needham, MA, hosted me as part of its Literacy Night. A library full of kids, their parents, and their principal engaged in some hands-on fun with me. Thanks very much to everyone who made this event possible. In addition to facilitating activities to better understand black holes and answering questions from the students, I was thrilled to read the verse from Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck that Became Spectacular and read Leonardo’s ABC. Reading them like this, I realized that each of my books end in a question. I like that.

The students were amazing. They really seem to know the world of writing (and publishing books) – and still got excited when recalling Mark Peter Hughes‘ visit last year! I was glad to share the story of how Mark generously supported me when I was feeling discouraged about how slowly i was progressing on the project that became A Black Hole is NOT a Hole. Several years ago,  I bumped into him at a certain coffee shop, when a van in the parking lot, wrapped in the logo of his fictitious Lemonade Mouth band, clued me in to his presence. Although he had escaped to the shop to write bit, he put his writing aside for a hello and a chat that helped set me back on track. (Thanks, again, Mark!) If you have not read Mark’s books, you are missing some excellent storytelling.

Breeze into Spring

You know it’s springtime in Massachusetts when you get 20 inches of snow on a Saturday and it’s 50 degrees F on Monday! This is also a sign that a busy conference and educational consulting season is just around the corner.  I’ll be at the NSTA Conference in San Antonio, and the NSTA STEM Expo in Saint Louis, sometimes manning the Engaging Youth through Engineering booth. At the end of the week, I’ll particpate in a St. Louis County Library Children’s Book Week event on Saturday, May 18; more on that to come in future posts. And then it’ll be on to New Paltz, NY in June, where my beloved editor Alyssa Mito Pusey and I will co-present about the editor-author relationship at the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference. If you are attending any of these events, please stop by and say hello. Meantime,  I’ll try to bring my camera and update this post with new insights and musings from the world of writing and STEM.


Dec 08

‘Tis the Season for Makin’ Some Lists

Cover of A Black Hole is NOT a HoleThis time of year, Santa’s busy with list-making– as are librarians and book reviewers. A Black Hole is NOT a Hole has been making some lists of its own! (Nice!)

I’ve had to check twice (and sometimes pinch myself) to make sure I’ve read the lists right. Here is where A Black Hole is NOT a Hole appears as of today.

Kirkus Reviews’ 100 Best Children’s Books of 2012

School Library Journal’s Best Books 2012

New York Public Library Children’s Books 2012: 100 Books for Reading and Sharing

Los Angeles Public Library Reads: Best of 2012 Children’s Books


To celebrate, I’ll soon post an interview with my Charlesbridge editor, Alyssa Mito Pusey, conducted by Deb Dempsey (former Grade 5 teacher and current colleague at Blue Heron STEM Education). Stay tuned!




Nov 04

A Small Way to Help after a Giant Storm


Hurricane Sandy

Credit: NASA GOES Project

Mystic, CT, is a place full of fond memories of firsts for me. My husband and I enjoyed our first date there. Shortly afterward, I began my first job in science education in nearby New London, and found myself in my first home, in Mystic, in a charming house across from the Mystic Seaport museum. My first cat would join me and Barry on strolls to downtown. My first friends to marry visited me to announce their engagement to me. A piece of my heart is in that town. So I was thrilled to book an author visit to Bank Square Books in downtown Mystic – for November 17, just a few weeks from now. And now i am saddened to hear that this lovely indie store has experienced flood damage from Hurricane Sandy.I have not yet been in contact with the Bank Square Books staff, but after visiting the store’s blog, I see thatthey face challenges from flooding and the impact of having to close the store while the building is repaired.  I’d like to invite you to purchase your next book from their online site.Meantime, I am contemplating ideas for a creative fundraiser during my visit on the 17th. Stay tuned.I am aware  how tiny this action is compared to the devastation and problems many people are facing in the wake of the storm. May everyione touched by this storm soon find a sense of peace, even in the face of great loss.




Sep 25

This Hole is NOT Black, but It’s Still a Hole…Lotta’ Fun!


Barbara O'Connor's dog Ruby enjoying the hole she dug this summer

Ruby’s Hole Summer at a Glance?
(image used with permission)

Recently, I was at the blog and web site of my friend and colleague, Barbara O’Connor, checking out her latest news and marveling at her list of accolades. I was excited to see a shot of her with her fabulous new book, On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s. If you have not collected and read every one of her stories for kids, you are missing out on a good deal of humor and heart.

Humor and heart also characterize a series of snapshots from Barbara’s backyard life – or, to be more exact, from the life of her latest love, her dog Ruby.The pictures have inspired me to share an entirely different take on holes, something other than those of the astronomical, spacetime fabric ilk. So instead of writing about my usual topics– STEM and writing– I thought I’d share an excerpt and the glimpse it provides us humans into a unique, doggy kind of joy. (Don’t tell a certain feline that I live with, okay? Galileo might not understand.) With her life full of such doggone inspiring moments, it’s no wonder Barbara’s How to Steal a Dog has stolen so many hearts.

OK. My inner blogger is telling me it won’t do to leave A Black Hole is NOT a Hole completely out of this picture, so here goes.

page from A Black Hole is NOT a Hole: A black hole is NOT a hole - at least not the kind you can dig in the ground or poke your finger through. A black hole isn't a hole like that. If a black hole is not a hole, then what in the universe is it.

From Page 2 of A BLACK HOLE IS *not* A HOLE

I write on Page 2:

A black hole is not a hole—

At least not the kind you can dig in the ground…

To that I now add:

But Ruby’s hole is exactly that!  Clearly, Ruby really digs holes!

And I really dig Ruby.


You can see the “hole” story here. But before you do that…Tell me, what do YOU really dig?


Sep 14

Artful Reading

a funnel-shaped image of a black hole, showing the spacetime "fabric" envisioned by Einstein and a black hole's swirling light.

How might you translate this concept of a black hole, illustrated by Michael Carroll in my book, into a black hole earring design?

This spring, to help celebrate the launch of A Black Hole is NOT a Hole, I decided to make myself a pair of black hole earrings to wear during my author events. I also wanted to make a matching pair for my dear friend Corrine Taylor. (Corri connected me to Dr. Wendy Bauer, the astronomer I consulted with while writing. She was also hosting my launch party.) I daydreamed a lot about the possibilities, spending time in the jewelry aisles of arts and crafts stores. I spent a lot of time thinking about black holes and their various features as I decided which aspects of them I most wanted to capture.It turns out that I was engaged in a great reflective learning experience, one that I think is consistent with the English Language Arts Common Core. I have begun experimenting with options for my author events—tapping into kids’ creative impulses to foster more interaction with the text. To demonstrate how fruitful the possibilities are, I thought I’d share some of the questions I mulled over as I imagined what a “black hole earring” design might be:

  • Should I riff off of Einstein’s view  of space — and a relativity-based visualization of a black hole — and risk giving away the surprise ending of the book? If so, how? Maybe create a 3D funnel shape from some sort of wide mesh to represent the idea of space as a flexible, responsive “fabric” described by Einstein? (See the final chapter of the book and enjoy Mike Carroll’s beautiful and clear illusrations.)
  •  …Or would I want to represent the motion of an object in orbit around a black hole- perhaps with a lovely, shiny spiral?
  • How might I represent the jet streams of energy that shoot out from the axes of the black holes and extend for tremendous distances? Could I suggest the scale without having to worry about tripping on my earrings?
  • Maybe I wanted earrings that actually spin, like some black holes do. Hmmm….


In the end, given how hectic life got around the time of the book launch, I settled on an extremely simple design (pictured right). A chrome “X-ray ring” (accretion disk) surrounds the “invisible” black space. The simplicity belies the complexity of information I was processing. With each possible design, I re-examined a facet of black holes presented in my book. I engaged deeply in the content of this text.

pair of earrings representing a black hole, with chrome accretion ring and black sphere beads

Creating an artistic representation can inspire readers–and at least one writer! — to dive into black holes.


This reminded me of the incredible work illustrators like Michael Carroll do when they interpret text. The experience also spurred me to reflect on wonderful lesson ideas that invite students to respond to text by creating other forms of communication. For example, I once attended the Teaching for Understanding summer institute at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero. One memorable and stimulating lesson was How Does a Poem Mean?. Learners are challenged to “translate” enigmatic poetry into dance, simple music, and visual art.Another example: a group of teachers once astounded me and my workshop co-facilitators when we challenged them to create multi-genre responses to nonfiction readings in a relatively short time span. Their works were richly layered and astonishingly deep given the short amount of time they had had to complete the exercise. They wrote mock newspaper stories set in the time of the original source material, quickly developed diary entries representing different historical people’s perspectives on the same event, and wrote heart-wrenching poetry. What’s more, the participants were vibrant as they shared their pieces with each other. (For more on multi-genre research and projects, you might want to start with the work of Camille A. Allen and Laurie Swistak.)

The activity had struck a deep, human chord. That’s the power of creating art, and I want to tap into that power to help readers dive deeply into black holes and other science content.

With this inspiration in mind, I encourage anyone wanting to extend the experience of reading A Black Hole is NOT a Hole – or any text – to choose a passage and create art or a craft in response to the work. Like working with metaphors to interpret challenging information, this type of activity can engage us in a whole new level of reflection on the meaning of the text. Better yet, share this with other readers and respond to the same passages with your own art. Then compare your creations and discuss why each of you made the choices you did. It’s likely you’ll find some new insights into the text (and black holes) as a result.

Of course, I’m not the first person to begin playing with these interconnections, and this is not my first time thinking about them. I’ve not formally studied the interconnections of the arts and STEM fields, and, to be honest, am always cognizant of the risks of integration (of, for example, poorly educating learners and ourselves in any two fields, if we do not approach them with care and appreciation for their ways of knowing and their unique cultures). However, it’s good time for me, at least, to start studying up.  I’ll start visiting the STEAM group’s website and will dig into this blog at Scientific American’s web site, which I found as a link from MiddleWeb. Maybe I’ll even manage a few more posts about my impressions.

Meantime, I invite you to share your impressions of the movement – and, of course, to create science-inspired art works. Please send pictures of your creations! When you do, don’t forget to share the story of your creative process.

*(As a side note, I wasn’t the only one with black hole earrings on my mind. Corri had similar ideas. As part of the special evening that was the launch party, she presented me with a lovely pair of earrings with an interesting meshy network pattern on them. “They kind of remind me of black holes,” she said as I opened them. Thanks, Corri!)

Jul 13

Ready, Set, Write! (& Learn)

image of a whirlpool from A BLACK HOLE IS *not* A HOLE

How is a black hole like a whirlpool? How not? Reflecting on the answers can help students learn. (Illustration by Michael Carroll as it appears in A BLACK HOLE IS *not* A HOLE,)

As a member of ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), I receive updates and teaser articles via email. I confess I often get so wrapped up in whatever my project du jour is, I don’t always read the articles. (I always think I’ll go back and read them…)

Today I read a teaser and decided to click “Read More” – and was well-rewarded. Jason Buell’s article, Linking Prior Knowledge and New Content with Metaphors was a great refresher and update on how to work with metaphors and students. Buell tells a nice story of a time when a metaphor failed to connect to a student because she didn’t understand the literal meaning of the item (bowling) used as a metaphor. That reminded me of some early writing I submitted to my editor at Charlesbridge. I had used a questionable metaphor, and Alyssa (Mito Pusey) had to carefully and tactfully remind me that if I had to explain the metaphor, I wasn’t going to connect with my readers.

I know it has only been a few months since my first post on metaphors, but it’s worth revisiting how to tap into their power as a writing and thinking tool. Buell shares a learning routine, 4-Square Synectics, which he picked up at an ASCD conference session, presented by Rick Wormeli. This strategy provides a way to make sure students can build their own, meaningful metaphors in response to new content. Buell also offers sentence frames that can help students organize and focus their thoughts on creating and analyzing a metaphor. Not many people have commented yet, but you’ll find some additional suggestions there.

In fact, I added a comment to Buell’s article, which I’ll repeat here. (See below.) To fully appreciate it, you may want to check out Buell’s article – well worth the time, as I found out.

My comments on using the 4-Square Synectics routine are as follows:

(After reading informational text–in a trade book, perhaps– students can) identify one or more of the metaphors that the author uses and complete the sentence frames based on what they recall from the text.

For example, in one of my works (A Black Hole is NOT a Hole), I compare and contrast a black hole and a whirlpool. Students’ responses would help us assess their understanding (of the book), while also teaching them a habit (we hope) of reflecting on the metaphors that are used in explanatory text.

Here’s what an appropriate response might look like.

Sentence Frame 1: A black hole is (like) a whirlpool because both a black hole and a whirlpool pull things toward their centers, but their pulling effects don’t work from far away.

Sentence Frame 2: A black hole is NOT (like) a whirlpool because in a whirlpool, it’s always at least possible for *something* to go fast enough to get out of the whirlpool no matter how close it is to the center, but close up to the center of a black hole, nothing – not even light – can leave it.

Of course, this will work with any text (not just science and not just nonfiction) – but it would be a nice way to integrate ELA with content-based nonfiction reading.

(I forgot to add that this is an important thing to consider, now that English Language Arts Common Core standards emphasize the importance of informational text and content-area literacies.)

Jun 24

Reading & Science Should be Wonderful

The author posing with a young girl and boy. The girl is holding a copy of A BLACK HOLE IS *not* A HOLE.

Young readers Ansley and Stephen joined me at Page & Palette in Fairhope, Alabama.

In my work as a consultant with Blue Heron STEM Education, my current projects involve the integration of engineering challenges with more traditional elementary and middle school classroom content, I am sold on the benefits of this work. Engineering has a vibrant role to play in fostering cultural literacy, citizen ability, workplace preparation, and engagement and motivation in important content. On the whole, kids absolutely dive into engineering. Classroom energy zings when kids are given a challenge to try. Many teachers embrace engineering as a means to their classroom ends – with gusto – and see its importance not just to the curriculum but to the children they teach.  STEM education makes sense on lots of levels.  From multiple perspectives, the movement to bring engineering into the world of children’s education is a practical and important idea.

And yet: A piece of me is wondering if, in my zeal, and in my colleagues’ zeal, to bring engineering into math and science classrooms, if we are maybe, maybe leaving out an important aspect of the culture of learning…that is: the importance of wonder.

Back in the 90’s and into the 00’s, we in the science and math education community put a lot of emphasis on inquiry. At first, the phrase was not “guided” inquiry or “scaffolded” inquiry, but just general, open-ended, we-don’t-know-the-answers-what-are-your-questions inquiry.  We began to guide inquiry for the purpose of making classroom time “more efficient” and helping to ensure that students not only learned to question and how to pursue their answers, but also learned the important ideas that are the underpinnings of science. We used guided inquiry so students would not only be good learners, but also be well-educated in the scientific understandings of nature as the knowledge stands today. This is all laudable, but now that there is an increasing shift toward understanding engineering as part of that science (and also math) canon, we are seeing increasing emphasis on engineering challenges in the classroom. In the best of these challenges, students either apply or learn content in order to solve a problem.

Want to make a bridge that spans a 2-foot gap? Learn a bit about or apply knowledge you already learned about forces. Learn how water becomes polluted during its water cycle in the context of trying to design a filter that will help clear and clean this water.  If you use math to characterize the way a factory works, and you then know “why you have to learn this stuff.” As I said, this all makes good sense. The only inkling of trouble that is beginning to gnaw at the edge of my consciousness is the idea that maybe, just maybe, we are buying into the idea that science or math has to help us DO something – there’s got to be a practical reason “why we have to know this” – in order to justify learning anything.

My caution stems from an old-fashioned idea and one that’s surprisingly hard for me to put into words, but my thinking goes something like this: If bringing engineering challenges into the classroom helps kids buy into learning math and science, then aren’t we inadvertently giving them a loud and clear message that the only reason to study math and science is so you can DO something with our knowledge – that it’s only when the information is needed for a specific situation that it is important?

What about wonder? Don’t we want to stimulate kids’ imaginations and intellectual spirits, get them to want to find out about information or a topic because they are simply wondering about it? Don’t we want to cultivate a habit of curiosity?

Look at Ansley and Stephen, my new young friends pictured here. They are about the age of many of the kids who have come to my book events. (In this case, we were at Page & Palette in Fairhope, Alabama, near Mobile.)  Officially, they are years—years!—“ too young” for my book, A Black Hole is NOT a Hole – yet they are reading it. In fact, Ansley, an advanced reader, is tackling it on her own. Not because it’s a good idea to bone up on black holes so she can write the best college essay ever about this experience in a decade or so but, presumably, because she finds the topic interesting. Maybe it’s the illustrations, maybe it’s the association with astronomy, maybe it’s the fact that her beloved grandmother brought the book home as a gift for her, but in any case, she has chosen for no practical reason to pick up a book and find something out.  What a truly wonder-ful reason to read!

Let’s remember to keep a place for wonder in kids—and our own—experiences.

May 11

The STEM Education Movement – Go Forth Carefully

image of interlocking and stacked, copper-colored gears, nicely lit and aesthetically presented

A recent Engineering and Design Research Education Summit stirred reflections on the directions of STEM education

There’s a movement afoot (again) in education: a surge toward STEM education. It is going to be all the more visible upon the much-anticipated release of the Next Generation Science Standards from developed by a partnership of the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, Inc. As a STEM educator who thinks she may have been involved with STEM before the acronym was first used (not sure of that), I am excited to see such interest in this area. But I have my concerns, as well.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. Here, technology is meant in its broadest sense–the objects, systems, and ways of getting things done that include everything from a stone grinding tool to your favorite digital gadget. From my perspective as a grades K-8  curriculum developer, the phrase “STEM education” has implied that engineering and technological awareness are brought into the math and/or science experiences of students, or  vice versa. For over a decade I have favored an approach that starts with an engineering challenge and leads, in a natural and authentic way, to questions and applications of math and science.

I discovered the potential power of this approach when I first started to use engineering design challenges in my work with the Museum of Science in Boston. At the time, I was working on a curriculum kit to help students learn about Leonardo da Vinci (a project that I never guessed would later lead to my first published book, Leonardo’s ABC, and, therefore, to my life as an author).  Because da Vinci had sketched a design for a hoist mechanism, I challenged my group of inner city Boston students to design something—any device at all—to help lift a package of “art supplies” (a few weights) to the top of a “tower” (a tabletop). I provided lots of varied and useful materials, including gears, straws, string, tape, balloons, dowels, cups, and construction paper. 

Students surprised me in delightful ways! Out of a group of 40 students and several teams, devices using various strategies emerged. Before we knew it, we were categorizing the designs into groups that correspond to types of simple machines. Without the formal word labels for these machines, students identified strategies that used gears, levers, and pulleys as distinct from each other.  (We also had an entirely different approach—one balloon rocket, launched from the ground and attached to a guide wire!)  

As you might expect, some of the specific designs within each approach worked better than others. Sometimes, this was apparently because students had misconceptions about how the materials or objects in their designs should work. Yet, all students seemed to have an appetite for continuing to improve their ideas, so there was an opportunity to explore and correct those misconceptions.

As I reflected on the entire experience, I came to realize that students had shown me their working theories about the natural world, without having to put these ideas into words first. This meant that we all had something to work from to help them better understand what was happening. Students had their concrete experience, and I had access to their ideas. I could now help students explore, frame, and further inquire into the way simple machines operate; I could enter into the formal, planned school curriculum in a way that would make sense to the learners and respond to their urgent desire for information.

The power of this experience inspired me. Only later–when the successful curricular materials research and development project Engineering is Elementary was founded and I joined the program soon after–did I begin to consider the importance of teaching engineering for engineering’s sake. I began to embrace design challenges for their potential to help teach not only about science and/or math, but also about technology and engineering.

Still more years later, I am beginning to have a few concerns. For example, I wonder whether using engineering challenges to launch science and math experiences will inadvertently give students the message that the only reason to study math and science is to serve a desire to manipulate the world around us. That would be a dangerous message. It’s still important to simply have a great math or a stunning science experience. For example, I hope that my book A Black Hole is NOT a Hole will be fully appreciated for the way in which it celebrates wonder and science—although there are, of course, connections to the other STEM fields. I cannot imagine telling the story of black holes without helping readers contend with huge numbers and the vast scale of the universe, or recognizing how a radio telescope and, later, X-ray telescopes, contributed to the discovery of black holes. But black hole science is the main thread of the story, and I hope that the science can be appreciated on its own terms.

I also am concerned that STEM is too quickly becoming a catch-all phrase, a buzzword for marketing programs so they seem current and on-the-mark, even if some may not be grounded in appropriate approaches to the content.

I am not alone in my enthusiasm-anxiety. At a recent P-12 Engineering and Design Education Research Summit held in Washington, DC, this mix of excitement and concern was palpable.

I hope to see the current STEM focus in education grow to its full potential to help empower students and teachers alike. Those of us involved in creating STEM experiences—and those in the position of shaping choices about what happens in classrooms and districts–have to be careful to be explicit about what it is that we are doing with each development. We need to be disciplined to examine whether and how integration is pursued in our teaching materials, and to consider and balance the underlying messages we are providing for learners. In these ways, we can ensure that wonderful STEM movement veers in the wrong direction.

Apr 26

Happy Astronomy Day! OR – Have you hugged an amateur astronomer lately?


the space place screen shot

If it's overcast, you might try exploring astronomy at NASA's online Space Place (

It’s not exactly a Hallmark holiday, but Astronomy Day(April 28, 2012) is a great excuse to explore and celebrate our universe. Wherever you are, there’s a way to participate. You can get outside and check out Venus or the nearly first-quarter Moon (technically, still a waxing crescent), or look into scheduled events near you.  Begin your search at the Astronomical League’s web site. Also, be sure to see the link to a little freebie at the end of this post.

If you find an organized event, chances are pretty good that there will be volunteers involved in making it a success. And those volunteers may well be from a local astronomical society or amateur astronomers club.

I never knew about amateur astronomers until I met my husband, an avid backyard telescope user. I have come to understand that these folks are a diverse group who share a passion for astronomy–not just among themselves but, in important ways, with the broader community. I had a chance to renew my appreciation and respect for amateur astronomers during a recent visit to share A Black Hole is NOT a Hole at a presentation for the South Shore Astronomical Society in Norwell, Massachusetts. The group peppered me with questions and their own interesting knowledge, adding spice to the visit. And during the rest of the meeting, I was reminded just how important these people are to our broader society.

Amateur astronomers link us to a part of nature that many of us forget to take time to appreciate.While many people appreciate the importance of getting outside for walks in the woods, hikes along the seashore, or even a swim in a lake or beach, not as many people seem to get outside to connect with the world beyond Earth. We might not even know where to begin, beyond trying to recognize and name a few constellations. That’s where our local astronomy gurus come in.

Like naturalists at Audubon areas and state and national parks, amateur astronomers are our ambassadors to the night sky (and other aspects of astronomy, as well). They pack up their gear, hike to remote places or urban parking lots, and share both their equipment and their precious viewing time with anyone who will join them. Just for the asking, they’ll take us on journeys through space and time to better understand a mysterious fuzzy patch, glimpse Mars through a telescope, or stand in awe of a stunningly bright crater on the Moon. They will patiently explain the nature of binary star systems, answer questions about constellations, and share whatever lore they have managed to learn from others.

Many of these folks are not just ambassadors. They are also dedicated guardians of the night sky. They participate in educational outreach and civic efforts to develop programs and local laws that can help protect our view of the night sky. (For more info on this, visit the International Dark Sky Association’s web site.) They keep us connected to nighttime and the enduring cultural bonds that tie us to humanity’s deep past–when the sky and nighttime were more in the foreground of daily life–and to the future that opens up to us when we learn to explore space.

Why not get out some day or night this weekend to celebrate Astronomy Day? With a visit to a local science center, school planetarium, park, or library, you might enjoy some activities, find some good reads, hear some great stories, and have a chance to take a fresh look at a solar-filtered Sun or zoom in on a dazzling night sky.

By the way, if for some reason, you miss this weekend’s events, never fear. Many local clubs host regular viewing nights and events throughout the year. Also, the Astronomical League, no doubt to help us explore a sky that changes with the seasons, has declared two Astronomy Days. Next one up: October 20.

Looking for an extra special way to celebrate? Download this free Astronomy Day card to someone who is a star in your universe.

Mar 28


Author first volunteer

Getting Started at Wellesley Books

One of my favorite parts of writing (and of being a STEM educator) is making connections. Among ideas. Between the everyday and the extraordinary. Across time spans. And, always, with people.

I like the medium of a book as a vehicle for making all these connections because I get to be thoughtful and deliberative about what I say. If I’m unsure of an idea, I can look into it and be reasonably sure that whatever I communicate is the best and most accurate idea I can muster. Later, when the book is out, I might hear about readers enjoying it. That’s a deeply satisfying click. Author outreach also offers phenomenal rewards. It is a joyful experience that energizes me.

So I was reminded during the flurry of last week’s interview with Vic McCarty, 1270 WMKT, and the official launch of A Black Hole is NOT a Hole at Wellesley Books. Vic asked great questions and made the whole experience an unmitigated pleasure. Listen to the podcast! (One note: I think I need to put a finer point on an answer to one of Vic’s questions. Vic wasked what happens to the matter in a black hole. I was focusing on what happens during black hole formation. The full story is – nobody really knows. Maybe it’s as I describe in the show. Maybe the matter is converted to energy. Science doesn’t yet offer a framework that can help scientists answer this with confidence.)

Wellesley BooksThe next evening, downstairs in Wellesley Books (Wellesley, MA) , we had a full house, with folks wrapped up the stairwell. A dynamic and enthusiastic audience ranging in age from about 8 to 60 years old breathed life into the event. I especially appreciated Potter, who practiced giving gentle “editorial” feedback to his dad, and Derek, who valiantly attempted the impossible in order to help me make a point about gravity. Stay tuned for video. The Wellesley Channel was there and tells me it plans on posting the entire event.

Finally, on Saturday, I played assistant to my longtime amateur astronomer husband Barry as he led an astronomy event at a beautiful local nature education center, the Soule Homestead in Middleboro, MA. I so enjoy watching Barry at work/play, helping people connect to the night sky, that big, beautiful, jewel-studded dome arcing all around us. The participants shared their own views of the stars, and Barry shared some ancient stories from different cultures.

Whether we are reading or writing, meeting an author or meeting our readers, or just hanging around the night sky, our stories connect us all. What a great gift. If you want to explore more about presenting this gift to kids, you might  consider an author visit (by me or others, of course!) or check out Read Kiddo Read, a blog dedicated to making kids readers for life.

Older posts «