Kitchen Science

I have always thought it would be amazing to center a chemistry class completely around what happens in the kitchen.  After all, every time a person bakes or cooks, they performing several different science experiments at once.  Combining ingredients in a specific way (stoichiometry, reactions, kinetics), watching things rise and fall (gas laws), learning the heartbreak of failure (all science all the time).  Okay, I am hopefully just kidding about the last one, but I mean, it is all there.  That is why I was so excited when I came across this article from NatGeo that provides an amazing example of doing just this with kids!  Let kids play with the ingredients of cookies.

I would actually take this experiment even a step further.  Have your kiddo keep notes on what they are adding.  Let them track the height and width of the cookie.  Let them write down observations of taste of the batter (if you are willing) and the end product.  This is a really nice summer activity.  Full disclosure: I could see this taking a long time, especially if the kids are really young (think 3rd grade and below).  However, this is an amazing way to let kids keep thinking about the science that they know and really letting them apply the scientific method.

And as a quick aside, I will remind you of my last post that talked about the amount of knowledge lost over the summer breaks.  This activity can also help students keep their math skills sharp!  Double Win!!

I will also write up a shorter version of this and provide a lab notebook page on our website (I will link it a little later) if you want your child to be able to take some notes while going through this.

12 Minutes to a Better Brain

Exercise as “Brain Food” and Its Impact on How We Le

I am sure we are all familiar with the old adages “Drink your milk, it will make your bones strong” and “Eat your spinach, so your muscles will be big like Popeye’s”.

As common and “parental” as these phrases may seem, they are actually backed by science. The calcium our body absorbs when we drink milk is related to bone strength. The vitamins and minerals in spinach (and many other vegetables) will allow our body to function in a better way, giving us more energy to become strong. There is a new idea circulating in research (as well as mainstream media) and the evidence based recommendation is:

“Get heart pumping exercise to strengthen your BRAIN



Not your heart, not your muscles, not your lungs, though those results will also occur and be beneficial. However the focus of the emerging research I am referring to is showing that aerobic or vigorous exercise likely leads to increases in brain function (also known as “cognition”) and improve a person’s memory, attention, and academic performance overall.

How does this work?

First a little background on how fascinating our brains are…

Remember the days of Play Doh? Molding, mashing, creating- keeping us busy for hours? Remember what happened if you left the Play Doh out of its container for too long (ok maybe it was just me who did this as a little kid?). Let me fill you in- it becomes rock solid. Yup, no more forming dogs and houses and “doh” patties. It was literally unable to be shaped. About 100 years ago that is how scientists viewed our brains, once formed, sort of hard and “un-moldable”. However, many brilliant scientists over the years have thankfully discovered that our brains are not “stuck” after a certain age. Our brains are actually constantly adapting and responding, a concept with a fancy name termed “neuroplasticity”. Neuroplasticity simply means that our brains can change and DO change, depending on what kind of “stuff” we put in it. This type of stuff that influences our brain includes:

  • What we listen to: loud music, background noise; research shows that young children and babies who are exposed to great amounts of noise (White noise, background noise, tv produced noise) may have significant negative effects on their attention and learning later in life.
  • What we see: images that we watch on tv and movies, pictures we look at influence how our brains experience real life. It can be a negative experience if we “feed” our brains with violent, angry or traumatic images on a regular basis. On the other hand when we provide our brains with positive, relaxing and funny input, it can boost our body systems as a whole.
  • What we eat: foods high in antioxidants (berries, greens, and yes, DARK CHOCOLATE) protects the insulation cells in our brain keeping it functioning as fast as we need it to
  • What and how we learn: this is one of the hottest topics in research right now, as we are seeing that even well into adulthood (When brains are LESS likely to change) the connections in our brain can be strengthened with learning new tasks (such as a language, or a picking up a new creative hobby such as painting or drawing), reading new material, or doing word and number puzzles.
  • How we rest: The importance of sleep, and good quality sleep (READ: NO TV, MORE THAN 6 HOURS, etc) is essential to maximizing our brain potential
  • HOW WE MOVE: This is the main point of this post and will be the focus from here on out…


Scientists have discovered that when we exercise (especially when we perform aerobic exercise; meaning heart pumping, heavy breathing, maybe even break a sweat type exercise) that our brains respond by releasing an amazing chemical called BDNF. The long and very complex name for this chemical is brain derived neurotrophic factor. But actually, I prefer to refer to it as “Big Deal Neuro Food”.

This extremely powerful little chemical leads to BIG changes in our brain circuitry. Think of your brain as a series of wires, all criss- crossed and interconnected like a web.


We have billions of these connections and wires in our brains, each with their own unique path to perform one aspect of our daily lives. We have areas of our brain responsible for our emotions, our memory, our judgements and our attention allowing us to perform complex tasks or read or favorite books. There are circuits that allow a sense of joy to come along with the scent of mom’s fresh baked cookies, or the clear memory of your first best friend. Our brain does SO MANY wonderful things for us. It’s only fair we do some good for it!



Image from

Here is a very simple representation of what happens to the pathways in our brain when we exercise:

Infographic Sarah


Keep in mind these pathways can be even stronger when you feed it “good food” from all of the other items listed above (what we see, learn, eat, etc). The other great news is that you do not have to LOVE exercise or be a marathon runner to experience these benefits.

A study conducted on middle school aged children showed that just 12 minutes of vigorous exercise had a positive effect on their attention and academic related performance. This is not just for kids!

A study of healthy adults demonstrated significant improvements in tests for attention and memory after participating in aerobic exercise for 30 minutes. This is great news, as this means that it is accessible for everyone (ie. You do not need fancy equipment or a gym) as well as doable even with a busy schedule. There are so many forms of exercise out there to get our hearts pumping; it can be running, but it can also be so many other things, dancing vigorously, swimming, jumping jacks, kickboxing/ punching bag, biking, hiking, jump rope… the list could go on! As a physical therapist working with patients with spinal cord injury I taught my patients who were unable to move their lower body at all how to get a great aerobic workout with their upper bodies. IT IS POSSIBLE & IT IS NECESSARY.

It saddens me when I hear about physical education and sports programs being cut from schools. We are literally working against ourselves and putting kids at a disadvantage by plunking them in a desk to sit all day and requiring them to be attentive and learn. Our bodies were not made to sit all day (for a great read: Sitting is the New Smoking) and it is certainly not an optimal environment for our brains to get stronger.

As now a professor teaching graduate students, one of the things I encourage MOST often and especially around examination time, is regular vigorous exercise, as well as sleep.

Keep this in mind next time you go outside for some fresh air, you’re in gym class, shooting hoops with friends, and just anytime you are taking time for yourself to get that heart going… you are doing more than just increasing your heart health, your mood and overall well- being; you are BOOSTING YOUR BRAIN!


12 Minutes to a Better Brain

In order to help get you started on your Brain Strengthening Journey, here is your “12 minute Brain Boost exercise program”. This can be done in your backyard, living room, even an office! This type of exercise is known to improve attention, enhance energy and boost those “feel good chemicals” in the body. So before reaching for that next caffeinated beverage or numbing our brains with mindless internet wandering, give this a shot! You won’t be sorry you did.


  • Arm spins- lateral rotations 1 min (30 seconds forward then 30 seconds backward)

Arms 1

  • Upper body arm spins (overhead) high: 3o seconds


  • Upper body arm spins (waist height): 30 seconds


  • Air squats (moderate to fast pace): 1 minute

Squats 2

  • Jog in place (for added cardiovascular benefit add overhead arm pumps, claps or punches): 2 minutes


  • Push- ups + mountain climbers: 2 minutes total

Instructions: Do 3 push- ups (can be on your knees) and then 15 Mountain climbers: Alternate

Push up 3           Arrow right               Push Up 4

  • Jumping jacks: 1 minute


  • Quick hops forward and backward: 30 seconds

arrow leftSide Jump 5Arrow right

  • Quick hops side to side : 30 seconds

arrow leftSide Jump 6Arrow right

  • Jog in place 1 minutes


  • Alternating punches 2 minutes (hand weights optional)

Punches 7



But WHY Do I Run?

By Meghan Pearson

But WHY Do I Run?


(As you can see, I always take it seriously…)

Running has always been a part of my life. I began by running around with my neighbors, then played soccer, then ran cross-country, and now, since I am a glutton for punishment, I run marathons. And before you ask, yes, I actually enjoy doing it. Luckily for me, recent science shows I am actually doing interesting things to my brain while I am running.

For the next month, Inner City Science and Faces of STEM will be reporting about exercise and science and the science of exercise. We are going to look at it from a lot of different perspectives, so stay tuned!


Exercise has long been known to have important health effects. We have all been told that it is an important part of life if we want to live long and prosper (ha!), but the why is a little harder to put into words. I am going to start with some basic studies that looked at what effect exercise had on the aging mind.

As we age, our bodies start to fail on us. It’s a slow process, but we have all probably seen or felt it. Maybe the metabolism slows, maybe the brain can’t remember things, or maybe there is the sudden urge to yell at kids to get off the lawn. The last one is a silly example, but you get the idea. Aging stinks. But research is actually starting to pour in that by exercising, we can slow (and sometimes reverse) some of the effects on aging.

Methods and Materials:

As stated above, there is much research in this topic; however, it should be noted as human testing is still very frowned on, most of these studies are done on mice and rats. Why is this still relative? Well, it turns out we are pretty similar to rats and mice (evolution is cool!)

Many scientists are interested in how to best preserve their brain power. In one such study, they began by comparing the learning abilities and new nerve cell growth of mice from four different groups: sedentary young mice, sedentary old mice, exercising young mice, and exercising old mice. They provided the third and fourth groups (the exercisers) with a wheel and monitored their use.


This is where it gets cool. They then compared how the mice performed on different a specific maze learning test, and it turns out, the mice that exercised did better! But it gets even better. While there was a difference in the performance between the young and old mice, the old mice performed outperformed their sedentary old mice peers, and in some regards, performed similarly to the young mice of the sedentary group. The mice were able to learn more effectively when they exercised. In fact, when the researchers looked at the brains of the mice, they found that the old mice that exercised had increased their neurogenesis. This is the scientific word for they were once again creating new dendrites: nerve cells! The old mice were not able to make as many new cells as their young peers, but the old mice that exercised showed more new growth than the sedentary old mice. They were reversing some of the effects of aging. It should also be noted that the old mice were all kept sedentary until they were 19 months old (remember, the life span of mice is only about two years…). These researchers believe that beginning to exercise sooner may have lessened the effects of aging even more.


So what does this mean for us? Well, it is pretty good motivation to get out the door and go exercise, but it also means that there are some pretty good indicators that exercising could help us feel young for longer. Human application of these studies is never perfect, but it is usually close. The sooner a person starts exercising, the sooner they can begin to have these benefits. So go outside, go to the park, chase your kids around. Give your brain a few extra dendrites so you can feel better for longer!

If you would like to read one of the papers about this topic, I encourage you to read Exercise Enhances Learning and Hippocampal Neurogensis in Aged Mice by Henriette van Praag et al.

Monty Hydrogen and the Quest for the Holy Fusion Reaction

By Terry Caston

It is the year 1820, just around the dawn of the industrial revolution. The world population is about 1 billion. You were probably born on a farm, work hard every day growing all your own food, and you may never leave your hometown your entire life. If you wanted to say happy birthday to granny who lives across the country, you sent a letter in the mail months in advance. If you wanted to read a book when the sun went down, you lit a candle-which you probably made by hand. Flash forward. It is the year 1920, and the world population is about 1.8 billion. You might live in the countryside, but you could go to the big city for a job in a factory. You may be lucky enough to ditch your horse and buggy for the brand new invention, the car. Want to say hi to granny, you could pick up one of those rotary phones, and you could turn a light bulb on to see at night. Fast forward again to today, the world population is about 7.2 billion. It doesn’t really matter where you were born because we have planes, trains and automobiles. Want to talk to granny? Just # or ‘like’ her latest Instagram post, but not Snapchat cause granny doesn’t know how to snap. Want to do anything at all, just ask your phone.

The quality of life has increased dramatically over time, and this is largely due to the availability of energy to power our lights, machines, phones, cars and devices. However, as the population of this planet increases, we put more strain on the global supply of fossil fuels and the environment. You’ve probably heard somewhere on the news, or heard someone talking, or read in an article something about the energy crisis, and this is a very real problem. The gasoline from your cars and the coal and natural gas burned in power plants to keep our phones charged pump dangerous gases into the atmosphere. These gases are clearly a major contributing factor to the rise in temperature of the planet. Water levels will rise and coastal cities will flood, super storms will become more violent, and resources will become scarcer causing more competition and violence to attain them. At current usage rates, it is likely we will run out of oil, gas and coal in your lifetime. Sound scary? It is.

But we humans are pretty good at solving problems, and there is so much free energy around us. Wind powers giant wind turbines to create energy. Solar panels use energy from the sun to create energy or to heat giant tubs of water to evaporate into steam and power turbines. We dam rivers to run water over turbines in hydroelectric power plants. We even use heat from the earth to turn water into steam and power turbines. However renewables only account for 10-20% of the energy generation on the planet, and that demand keeps going up and the developing world industrializes.

Then you’ve got nuclear energy. Every nuclear power plant today is a fission reactor. With fission, we take really big atoms like uranium and plutonium and break them down into smaller atoms. Fission creates massive amounts of energy, but it also creates massive amounts of nuclear waste which has to be put into barrels and buried for millions of years. There is also a limited supply of nuclear fuel, maybe a couple hundred years, and the safety and security risks around the radioactive waste make nuclear fission unpopular. It doesn’t look too great, but there is one energy source that is the holy grail of holy grails and would solve all of the world’s energy problems tomorrow.

Can you think of an energy source that is so powerful that at 93 million miles away it will literally burn your retinas out of your eyes if you stare at it for too long? The sun operates by nuclear fusion. This is different from fission which was discussed above. Where fission is splitting a really big atoms, fusion works by smashing two very small atoms together like hydrogen, and making helium. When you smash these two hydrogens together, the resulting helium atom is just a tiny bit lighter than the two hydrogen atoms. You’ve heard 2+2 = 4, this is more like 2+2 = 3.999999. That tiny little bit of mass is converted completely into energy. Ever heard of that famous Einstein equation E = mc2? The E is energy (what we want). The ‘m’ is mass (that tiny little bit of difference between the hydrogen and helium). And the c (this is the important part), the c is the speed of light. That’s 670,600,000 miles per hour. And then it’s squared. That’s a lot of zeros. So moral of the story, tiny bit of mass is A LOT of energy.

So where do we find the fuel for this magical fusion? What has hydrogen in it? Water! Have you ever seen a picture of earth from space? We have A LOT of water. And remember how fission had nuclear waste? Well there is much less nuclear waste from fusion, and the waste is safe to humans in hundreds of years, not millions of years. Can you imagine a world where we had an almost infinite energy supply (fusion) from an essentially unlimited fuel supply (sea water)? Energy would be free. Wars over oil and fossil fuels would stop tomorrow. We would stop burning fossil fuels, and the only place you’d find gasoline powered automobiles would be museums. So great, fusion sounds awesome, why are we wasting time reading this blog, let’s go fuse some stuff now right?

Wrong. We’ve been working at this for a long time, and it’s not easy. You’ve got to get two positively charged atoms together, and they don’t want to get close. Ever tried to push the positive side of two magnets together? It’s kind of like that times on a much bigger scale. In order to do this, we have to heat the reactants up into a material called a plasma, and that takes a lot of energy to start. The only places we’ve been able to create the conditions to start fusion on Earth are in thermonuclear explosions. The sun can do this because it’s really big and has gravity on its side but much harder in a lab. You’re essentially making a tiny star in the lab. Then you have to contain the little star which is a whole other set of engineering challenges. This was in fact the entire premise behind the 2004 movie Spiderman 2, where Dr. Octopus makes a fusion reactor, and then he goes crazy. We’ve been able to create fusion reactions on Earth as a proof of concept, but only for very short periods of time, seconds, before the reaction stops. Though people have been seriously researching fusion since the 1950’s, commercial fusion power plants are still out of reach. This is a problem that will probably be solved by the next generation of scientists who are middle school students today, so if you really want to save the world and think about going into fusion research, I guarantee the vine or snapchat of the first sustainable fusion reaction will get a lot of likes.

All Roads Lead to…Data Science?

By David Crocker

I’m a Data Scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and I’m doing work in a job that didn’t exist when I was born.  It took me a long time to get to where I am, but eventually I did it.

I went to a public high school that had a few really good teachers and I was able to learn a little bit of Calculus before I graduated.  I got into a great university, UCLA, but I wasn’t prepared emotionally to do what it took to get through College.  There were really three reasons for my dropping out.  I lived far away and couldn’t afford to move closer, so I rode the bus for four hours a day.  When you are in college you have to spend a lot of time studying, and I didn’t know how to stay focused on my homework back then.  Also, when I went to college I realized that I would never be a doctor and I was deeply disappointed.  You see, I didn’t know about how many interesting jobs there were out in the world.


So I dropped out.  And I worked laying carpet, I worked in factories, and I worked at convenience stores.  But I never felt like I fit in.  I was curious about the world.  I always wanted to know how it worked.  I read a lot of books that had exciting ideas.


So after I got over my own disappointment at where I was in life, I started to go back to school.  I went to a community college, El Camino College, in Torrance, California.  I decided that I would study Electronics, and I really began to study hard.  When my friends were out partying all night, I would leave early and go study, or get sleep, so that I would be ready.  I worked evenings and nights at a convenience store to pay for my rent and food.  I got a cheap car, but I rode my bicycle whenever I could to save money on gas.  It was hard, but it was also some of the most fun that I had ever had.  I was surrounded by people that cared about ideas in the same way that I did.  I graduated with an Associate’s Degree!


Then I got a job building satellites.  I was working on and touching things that ended up in geosynchronous orbit, and one even went to Mars.  I wasn’t good with my hands the way that so many of my coworkers were, though.  So I started to plan the production of satellites.  I was translating blueprints into instructions for building microwave integrated circuitry modules that sent radio, television, and data around the world.


But things couldn’t be easy, could they?  No.  The company that I worked for had stiff competition, and for a lot of reasons, that work dried up.  Luckily, I was paying attention to current events and I saw it coming.  A lot of my friends were spending money and going into debt, but I started saving up and paying off every debt that I had.  Then I moved to Denver, Colorado.


I didn’t have a permanent job.  I worked at a lot of temporary office jobs, and soon I had a reputation as a solid worker.  But I knew that I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t keep striving.  So I quit and enrolled at the University of Colorado at Denver.  I took out student loans for the first time in my life, but it took months before I started receiving the money.  At one point, I ate rice and beans for a solid month.  I had to borrow money from my parents, and it was humiliating.  But I paid them back as soon the money came through.  I got rid of my car and rode a bicycle everywhere in every kind of weather except ice—I learned that the hard way.


I love History and English, and I was thinking that I would get a degree in one or the other, but part of my degree required that I take a class on science for non-majors.  The professor that taught that class changed my life.  Dr. Robert Damrauer was able to teach Chemistry in a way that students without a deep background could really understand.  He convinced me to switch majors to Chemistry, he gave me a job in his Organosilicon Research Laboratory, and soon I was supplementing my income with money I earned doing science.  I owe Dr. Damrauer a debt that I can never repay.  He, and the Chemistry Department faculty supported my studies in a way that was both personal and professional.  They didn’t just teach me.  They cheered me on.  They corrected me when I made mistakes, and they gave me feedback that I needed.


I focused my effort on school and staying in shape.  I lived as cheaply as I could stand, and I made friends who studied together.  We quizzed each other, and when one of us got the material and others didn’t, we would explain it to the others.  Sometimes people who are smart and motivated don’t make friends because they are too busy competing with each other.  But that is a mistake that we worked hard to overcome.  We worked together, we studied together, and we shared our knowledge.  We competed with each other, too, but when someone else did better, we congratulated them, and we meant it.  The wisest thing that I ever did in college was to surround myself with people that were smarter than me, and help them however I could.


After I graduated I got a job installing and repairing scientific instruments.  I travelled for several years and went to hundreds of laboratories all around the country.  I worked in laboratories that tested food flavors, water and air quality, pesticides, and even chemical weapons.


After several more years, I realized that I still wasn’t doing the jobs that I was best suited for, so I went back to get my Master’s degree in Computer Information Systems.  I had programmed for fun in high school, and had taken several college courses, but it was time for me to get serious again.  I was working and took evening classes to get the degree, and it was very expensive, so I made sure that I finished.


This led me to a contract and then a job with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado.  Now I work to integrate software and help other scientists with publishing their research and their data.  And one of the most important things that I am doing is making it possible to make our data available to the public.  Every federal agency, and many state and local ones, are now trying to make data available for free to the public.  This will change how the worlds of science and of government work because individual citizens will be able to use it to understand the world through science.  It will lead to new inventions and new businesses.  It will help ordinary people make sure that their governments are doing the right things.


I didn’t go straight through college like some of the other students in my high school did.  But I never stopped trying to learn new things.  I worked hard, and I still do, but a lot of people have helped me out.  I couldn’t have done it without some great teachers that invested their time and effort in me.  I couldn’t have done it without taxes getting invested in my schools and colleges.  For many years my jobs didn’t pay very well, but they were always interesting, and I always got by, and I always felt like I was doing something that made the world a better place.