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Archive for March, 2012


Many cities have found ways to limit the very visible form of pollution called smog (smoke+ fog= smog), but on some unfortunate days industrial and automotive  pollution can mix together with inopportune  weather conditions and form unhealthy levels of smog in the air, leaving a hazy blanket over a city. The problem intensifies in cities surrounded by mountains and on warm weather days. Smog causes harm to humans, animals, and plants.

Do this simple experiment in the classroom to see fog form in a jar! Adult supervision required!

Smog Alert!

1) Cut a strip of paper about 10 in x 1/2 in. (25cm x 1.25 cm).

2) Fold the length of the strip in half and twist the paper.

3) Make a “lid” for the glass jar by shaping a piece of aluminum foil over the open end of the jar. Take away the foil and put it aside.

4) Put some water in the jar. Swirl it around so the inside walls of the jar are wet.

5) Pour out the water. Make sure there isn’t any water pooling at the bottom of the jar.

6)  Place 3 ice cubes on top of the foil to make it cold (I used an ice pack).

7) Ask an adult to light the strip of paper. Drop it and the match into the damp jar.

8) Quickly put the foil lid on the jar and seal it tightly. Keep the ice cubes on top of the foil, in the middle.

What do you see in the jar? Have you ever seem this in the sky? Could the air still be polluted on a visibly clear day?

This offers a prime chance to discuss the deadly London smog disaster of 1952, one of the worst environmental incidents in history. During a very cold but windless week,  many Londoners burned more coal than usual to heat their homes. This pollution combined with the pollution from coal powered power stations created a thick layer of smog in the air which severely affected the respiratory tracts of many people.   The smog killed 4,000 people and shut down all road, air, and rail transportation in the city! This event would come to inspire environmental research, government regulation, and public awareness of the relationship between air quality and health. 

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Last Tuesday marked the official first day of spring. Happy Spring everybody! We’ve been talking about air quality and what better way to celebrate springtime and fresh air than a lesson on New York City trees.

MillionTreesNYC is a project that aims to plant a million new trees throughout the 5 boroughs within a decade, and the participation of New York City public schools is essential to attaining their ambitious goal!

They offer a huge range of programs and curricula for all grade levels. School programs range from year-long green surveying and planting projects to one-day school-wide assemblies to short 15 minute lesson plans for all grade levels.

Bette Midler formally beginning the MillionTrees campaign by planting a Caroline Silverbell in 2007.

Check out the great Kids Section where you can find a fun tree quiz and a leaf ID game to help your students familiarize themselves with common New York city  trees. Take a walk around the neighborhood  and take a tree survey! If you find a tree pit that’s missing a tree, MillionTrees can guide you through the process of acquiring, planting, and caring for your school’s new tree.

Earth Day is coming up on April 22nd.  Spending a day planting trees would be an excellent way to celebrate!

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This weekend in science at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum we investigated animal nests in our program sponsored by National Grid. Kids piled into the greenhouse where we brought out some awesome examples of creative nests from our collection. Kids had the chance to build their own small nests and worked together to create one giant outdoor nest from recently trimmed tree branches.

From twigs and mud to bubbles and spit, nests can be made out of just about anything. Try our nest building activity in the classroom: Start with a layer of glue on the bottom of a paper bowl, then pass out a big mix of materials. You can either collect twigs and dead leaves from outside or gather up any fabric, string, yarn or other craft materials you have around. Let the kids go wild making nests and see what they create! Using chop sticks as a mock beak makes this activity a little more challenging for older kids. Can they make a sturdier nest by weaving together or braiding their materials? Would they want their nest to be flashy or to blend in?

We’ve talked about the creativity of urban birds on the blog before. While your students are building their nests, the class can also be monitoring one of the Nest Cams that scientists and bird lovers have set up around the city to keep an eye on our populations of Peregrine Falcons and Hawks.

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Getting students to take note of smog, soot, and visible pollution in their neighborhood can be an eye opener, but it’s also important for students to understand that not all pollution is visible and that we can’t see or smell some of the most harmful pollutants. For instance, carbon dioxide didn’t even qualify as a pollutant until scientists proved that its role in the greenhouse effect helped contribute to global warming.

If you want an interactive fun way for your kids to learn about the major air pollutants affecting our planet and our health, have them perform a play with a very unique cast of characters. “The Awful Eight” is an air pollution play developed by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. Common pollutants are brought to life by students and given personality traits based on their harmful effects. These eight pollutants are picketing against the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. Our now familiar gang of “Particulates” chants “Dust, soot and grime, pollution’s not a crime! Soot, grime and dust, the E.P.A.’s unjust!” while sly Carbon Dioxide brags about sneaking into the air when cars burn fuel inefficiently.

After covering the awful environmental and health costs of each pollutant, Carbon Dioxide points towards the audience with a daring claim. It’s not CO2’s fault the earth is warming: “The reason you’re in such a mess is because you use so much fuel and cut down so many trees!” Harry Wheezer agrees and turns to the audience for ideas on how to fight air pollution.

Connie Lung ends with this: “The bottom line? These air pollutants are a pretty tough bunch– but people help create them, and people can reduce the amounts that are in our atmosphere. Thank you and good night.”

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We’ve talked about some activities and curriculum to introduce transportation into your classroom. Here are three books that would go great with a class subway ride!

Subway by Anastasia Suen and Karen Katz is a rhyming and repetition book for Early Childhood. The book uses bright illustrations to follow a little girl and her Mom on their journey through the subway. Each page covers one part of the bustling sensory experience that is an MTA ride.

Subway Sparrow by Leyla Torres tell a simple lovely story of an English-speaking girl, a Spanish-speaking man, and a Polish speaking woman working together to free a Sparrow who is trapped inside a subway car…great for English-language learners!

Subway Story by Julia Sarcone-Roach is sort of a modern Thomas the Tank Engine tale. The book follows a subway car named Jesse who loves her job very much, but her path takes a surprise turn when after 50 years of subway service she gets repurposed for an excited new use…to serve as artificial reef to a myriad sea animals!

Read more about the booming success of this true to life subway reef project. It seems that the only problem Jesse has is that she doesn’t have enough friends to join her as a reef!

You probably can’t take your class for a visit to the subway reefs but you can visit another place that has been repurposed from its train-lined past.

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Thinking about traffic and transportation may have piqued your students’ interest in air pollution. Smog is every city kid’s constant companion.

Why not take the class on an air pollution walk around the neighborhood? They can see soot building up on windowsills and awnings and smell the black clouds behind the bus.

Back in the classroom, ask if any of the students suffer from asthma. Air quality and asthma rates in schools are important environmental justice issues in our city. Check out this NYTimes article covering a five year air quality study New York University researchers conducted in the South Bronx where 17% of school aged children have asthma. The study investigated how local air quality relates to factors such as traffic and the number of waste-transfer stations within a close radius. Researchers took air quality readings at ground level from eight different sites and also had students help out by wheeling around special air quality book bags and keeping diaries of their asthma symptoms.

“The study found a strong correlation between asthma hospitalization rates, poverty, the percentage of Hispanic residents and the number of industrial facilities in the Bronx, with Hunts Point having by far the highest number and density of industrial facilities.”- Bill Egbert, New York Daily News.

For an easy test of the air quality around your school, try hanging a paper coffee filter coated in Vaseline outside your school, and hang one inside a Ziploc bag as a control. Secure the coffee filters so they can’t blow around, and make weekly observations as a class. In a few weeks, you should start to see discoloration and buildup of particulates from the air.

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This past week, we’ve been talking about ways to get your students thinking about how transportation affects their immediate environment. An excellent way to begin widening the application of their emerging ideas on transportation from your school’s neighborhood to the city-at-large would be a visit to the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn.

The Transit Museum offers school programs for Pre-K through 12th grades and includes a hands-on activity and tour of the museum. Whether or not you sign up for a tour that focuses on environmental science, the Transit Museum offers ample opportunity to begin discussing the wide scope environmental impacts of different forms of transportation. If you’ve led a lesson on cars idling in front of your school, you can now discuss the ways automobile pollution impacts our entire city. How would New York change if more people rode the subway, took buses, or carpooled?

The Transit Museum collaborated with Streets Education to design Go Green Curriculum focused toward 4th and 5th graders. This program is comprised of five sustainability-minded transportation lessons, the second of which is a visit to the museum.

Be sure to visit the museum’s online Teacher Scrapbook where you can share the exciting transportation themed lessons and activities you’ve been teaching in class.

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