CSI Day Camp Travels to Virginia Beach

Last Tuesday, February 25th, our CSI Camp-for-a-Day program was back on the road as we traveled to Brandon Middle School in Virginia Beach, VA. Since we hadn’t been out and about since our Colorado Springs event in November, it was nice to get out and stretch our CSI legs yet again.

This event, which featured roughly 85 6th grade students and six middle school teachers, was kicked off by a wonderful presentation by the local branch of the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS). These professionals introduced campers to the science, technology, engineering, and math skills required of CSI professionals,

DSC_0017DSC_0012DSC_0013and one camper even got to try his hand at swabbing an agent’s cheek for DNA.

DSC_0019After getting acquainted with the world of a CSI agent, students traveled back to their units to discover that a kidnapping had occurred! The crime scene featured evidence that the campers would use to narrow down their suspect list during the fingerprint dusting activity,

Forensic Technician Megan Watson of the Virginia Beach Police Department leads campers through the fingerprint dusting activity.

Forensic Technician Megan Watson of the Virginia Beach Police Department leads campers through the fingerprint dusting activity.



the fingerprint sensor lab,

Students learn all about the different components used to analyze fingerprints in the Fingerprint Sensor Lab.

Students learn all about the different components used to analyze fingerprints in the Fingerprint Sensor Lab.


and the paper chromatography activity.

Brandon Middle School teachers help students determine which marker wrote a note found at the crime scene in the paper chromatography activity.

Brandon Middle School teachers help students determine which marker wrote a note found at the crime scene in the paper chromatography activity.


Additionally, two professionals from the Virginia Beach Police Department’s K9 Unit—officer Curila and Rudy—discussed what a day in the life of a K9 officer is really like, and gave the students tips on how to train for and pursue a career working with K9s.


The fingerprint dusting, sensor, and paper chromatography activities helped students narrow their list of suspects from twelve people to three, and campers were finally able to hone in on the perpetrator during the Closing the Case activity.


Once again, we had a wonderful experience bringing our CSI Camp-for-a-Day program to a new community in the United States. The people of Brandon Middle School—students, teachers, and administrators alike—really embraced this program with open arms, and dove right in to the project-based and inquiry-based curriculum. Additionally, the impact of the CSI Camp-for-a-Day was extended even further during the teacher workshop, which took place the night before the event. This workshop allowed us to share the full curriculum with teachers from all over the area so that they could, in turn, utilize these activities in their own classrooms for years to come.

Virginia Beach teachers dust for fingerprints at the teacher workshop.

Virginia Beach teachers dust for fingerprints at the teacher workshop.

DSC_0072While those of you who frequent this blog are likely familiar with the structure of our CSI camp programs, we often don’t stress the impact these programs have on communities all across the US. By involving local teachers in this program, we can extend the use of this curriculum far beyond just the students who attend our one-day event. The major goal of this traveling program is to extend the reach of our CSI summer camp program nationally. We project that our traveling camps-for-a-day will have the opportunity to reach roughly 45,360 students throughout the duration of the program, assuming each teacher uses the curriculum with 5 classes of 18 students per year. In this way, we are able to further accomplish our overall mission to increase the number and diversity of students interested in pursuing STEM education and careers.

Cybils: Honoring Some of the Best STEM Books of 2013

We’re a little late to the party on this one, but figured you all might still like to see this.

STEM Friday

Yay! The Cybils award winners were announced today.


Quite a few strong STEM books were nominated in the Elementary/Middle-Grade Nonfiction category last year and four made it to the finalist round.

The three runner-ups were:


The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdös by Deborah Heiligman and illustrated by LeUyen Pham is a rare treat. This picture book biography explores the life of mathematician Paul Erdös, with the important messages that math can be exciting and interesting and that it is okay to be different from everyone else. Heiligman’s passion for her topic shines through.

Also reviewed by:


Volcano Rising by Elizabeth Rusch and illustrated by Susan Swan

Previously reviewed here at STEM Friday


How Big Were Dinosaurs? by Lita Judge places dinosaurs next to common objects to give children something concrete to which to compare. Children will probably be surprised how…

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Where Are They Now? Cool Jobs Alumna Shannon Johnson

johnson_shannon_lab2The last time we spoke to Shannon Johnson, Deep-Sea Research Technician with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), she explained that her job as “like watching the Discovery Channel in real-time.” Shannon applies her background in ecology and zoology to solve the mysteries that surround creatures of the deep sea. We recently caught word that Shannon spent an exciting summer collecting deep-sea samples in the South Pacific, so we sat down with Shannon to find out what her tropical endeavors entailed.

Since it has been over a year since we last spoke, why don’t you update us on how you’ve been staying busy as a deep-sea researcher.

SJ: Well, I’ve been working on a number of things. Right now I am working on publishing a paper that describes five new species of deep-sea snails using only their DNA. It’s not totally ground-breaking science, but it’s definitely a new technique. In the past, people have often described animals using their traits—some birds are described using their song, for example—but we are now using DNA for identification.

Can you talk a little bit about what that process looks like?

Since all of the animals I work with are deep-sea animals, collecting them and sequencing their DNA can be a pretty involved process. It isn’t the easiest thing to collect animals from the deep-sea, as many times they are located miles off shore and in specific areas like hydrothermal vents or whalefalls. Another challenging thing about working in the deep-sea is that there is a ton of crypticism, which means that many animals look the same even though they are, in fact, different species with distinct evolutionary lineages.

Since we are working with a number of different types of animals, there isn’t just one way we go about identifying them. Once we have the DNA extracted, there is a number of genes that we can use to tell them apart. My boss has an awesome analogy to describe genetics: all of the different genes we use is like a set of golf clubs. In golf, sometimes you need a putter to make the shot, and sometimes you need a driver. Similarly, we use a number of different genes to identify different species based on the circumstances.

The hard part about DNA sequencing is knowing that the genes mean once it is sequenced. People say that sequencing DNA is hard, but it’s really not difficult. The difficult part comes in knowing what the DNA means once it is sequenced.

So how do you go about matching the DNA to different species once it is sequenced?

Once we get the DNA information for a species, we run it through a database to see if it matches anything. This process is very similar to what happens when someone’s fingerprint is collected and run through a database to find a match. Identifying these deep-sea snails that we have been working with can be particularly difficult because they are so different: they do different things and live in different types of environments. That’s one thing that makes this paper I’ve been working on so important. We need conventional ways of identifying these species.

So if someone were to ask you why the study of deep-sea creatures like these snails is important, what would you say?

That’s an interesting question. I personally like studying these things because I find them really interesting and really cool. But one of the most interesting things about these snails is the unique way that they speciated. Typically animals will speciate—or evolve from being one species to being different species—because of some some long-term major separation that causes a disruption in gene flow. These separations are often caused by physical things like the presence of a mountain range or a large current. These snail species are different because there are three species that actually live together, and yet they are the most distinct species in the genus. That’s a really rare event, especially in the deep-sea, and it presents a really cool opportunity to test evolutionary hypotheses. So in terms of science, these snails are really interesting.

Photo by Yoshihiro Fujiwara

Photo by Yoshihiro Fujiwara

It’s true that these snails will probably never be seen by people except through the photos we take with our underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). I’m trying to grow awareness of what I’m calling the “punk rock” snails—they live in hot acid, they’re covered in spikes and they have purple blood. They’re a pretty charismatic group, they look cool, and I’m naming one of them after the drummer from The Clash. These snails are also interesting in terms of climate change research because they live in hot acid. Oceans are becoming more acidic with the increase of carbon dioxide in the ocean, so in a climate change perspective, these guys might actually be ok.

Something that you said reminds me of something one of our Cool Jobs meteorologists expressed when he stated that scientists are the modern-day explorers. It seems that your field is very similar to that.

Absolutely. I was not at all interested in marine science as a young person because I thought that scientists had the oceans all figured out. But now I get to discover new species all the time. We literally discover new species every time we go to sea, and we’re not always going to exotic locations. Even when we go out in the Monterey Bay we find not only new species, but new genera and new families even.

Shannon will be traveling the oceans again at the end of this month, so be sure to check back to read all about her experiences at sea.

Science of the Winter Olympics

The time has come once again, and we find ourselves coming upon the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. The Olympics have long been associated with fierce competition, emotional stories of victory and loss, and tales of international diplomacy and sportsmanship. Yet an all-too-often overlooked aspect of the Olympic Games is the amount of science, technology, engineering, and math required to make the games a success.

But fear not, the day has come for the science of the Olympic Games to step out of the shadows and into the public eye. Thanks to NBC Learn and the National Science Foundation, science lovers and yet-to-be-lovers alike can feast their eyes on a 16-part video series highlighting the different ways in which science contributed to this world-class event. From the science of skis to aerial physics, this initiative brings the games to life in a way that has never before been seen.

ski engineersAs the state of STEM education in the United States continues to be dire, efforts like these are increasingly important to raising the profile of the sciences. Many students are unaware of the vast amount of professions within the STEM fields, and many others are searching for careers that blend their personal acumen with their passions. Sports are arguably one of the most high-profile fields in American culture, and the connection between sports and the sciences are much greater than many people realize. Our STEM-Works team had this realization during our Cool Jobs initiative when interviewing professionals like Ski Engineers Harrison Goldberg and Connor Gaeta and Athletic Trainer Riana Pryor. Now, thanks to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, many more students will have the opportunity to make this connection as well.

If you haven’t had a chance to catch this 16-part video series, you can view the entire series on YouTube.

February is American Heart Month

healthy-heartTo bring awareness to issues surrounding heart health—and likely to capitalize on the heart-related symbolism of Valentine’s Day—February has been designated as American Heart Month. Heart-related awareness initiatives have become more and more prevalent in the past decade or so. As diseases like obesity and heart disease become more widespread in our society, the importance of taking ownership of our heart health is paramount. Organizations like the CDC, the American Heart Association, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and many others are taking this month to offer information and recommendations for a healthy heart and health lifestyle. So… we thought we’d follow suit.

This month’s newest scavenger hunt is all about the heart. From anatomy, to heart ailments, to recommendations for heart health, this scavenger hunt takes students on a tour du heart. Students will hitch a ride with a blood cell to get a first-hand account of how our heart keep our bodies alive and moving, all in celebration of American Heart Month!

This Month in STEM News – January, 2014

Now that we are fully in the throes of 2014, I’d like to take a second to highlight some of the exciting STEM news that surfaced after the turn of the new year. So without further ado…

The Animal Kingdom IconAnimal Kingdom

For your daily dose of “Awwwww,” you can thank Washington DC for this month’s animal-related story: Bao Bao the baby giant panda finally made her public debut. For your daily dose of science, experts explain why you think it’s so darn cute. Read article

Extreme Weather IconExtreme Weather

Polar Vortex, Polar Vortex, Polar Vortex. Other weather phenomenons are probably feeling a bit like Jan Brady after the amount of coverage the Polar Vortex has conjured this month. Since we’ve been super bombarded with the science behind these low temperatures, here’s a beautiful visualization of this chilly phenomenon instead. Read article

Medical Innovations IconMedical Innovations

It was recently announced that scientists may have found a way to make embryonic-like stem cells from adult cells. The process for making these cells is so radically different that the cells have earned themselves a new name: STAP cells. Read why some scientists are labeling the process as magical… Read article

Robotics IconRobotics

In an attempt to bolster the company’s robotics portfolio, Google has recently acquired artificial intelligence technology, or AI. Google’s not saying much about this acquisition, which leaves me no choice but to fill in the blanks with my own science fiction plot…  Read article

Space IconSpace

Move over NASA, Virgin Galactic is attracting it’s own space shuttle commanders. This month, a former NASA Space Shuttle Commander takes his new ride for a spin, courtesy of Virgin Galactic. Can’t wait to get your hands on a boarding pass? Don’t worry, you’ll only need to fork out $250,000. Read article

Under the Sea IconUnder the Sea

Just when we thought coral reefs were only for tropical vacations, Canadian researchers discovered a chillier version of the tourist attraction. The first ever Greenlandic reef was discovered in the frigid waters off the coast of Greenland, and the discovery was totally not on purpose… Read article

Video Games IconVideo Games

Two words: Virtual Legoland. If you haven’t seen this recent Google creation, you’ve got to check it out. Read article

Wind Energy IconWind Energy

Ok, I admit it. This subject is often the toughest to fill with cool content, as many of the developments in this field are either really slow or written in legaleze. So I was delighted to come across coverage of the world’s largest offshore wind farm as seen from space. Use this backdrop for your next game of dots and boxes! Read article

So there, various STEM subject lovers. You’re covered!