When Buses Fly

I arrive home to a school bus parked in my driveway. The tow truck that brought it is just pulling out. Mrs. Brainiac is here again to share a little more about Jerry Brainiac’s deep rooted craziness. I know the presence of this bus means we are getting involved in another STEM type project. Something creative, scientific, engaging and, yeah, crazy. Another activity designed to instill curiosity about science and technology coming right up. Oh boy. So fun! My mind races with thoughts about what hands on tinkering we will engage in now. In my yard. And driveway. Guaranteed we will learn about technology and science and engineering with this project.

Here we go! A fire truck is pulling in and the guys are bringing out the Jaws of Life to tear out the bus seats. Not as easy as it looks. And Jerry Brainiac is bringing out gallons of white paint and a pile of brushes. And the kids. Of course there will be kids, kids with paint brushes on my driveway. Ahhhh, it’s starting to take shape. It’s a Space Shuttle!

After weeks of this space craft sitting in my parking spot, it now has a big control panel installed, lights, a microwave (astronauts gotta eat), an Apple IIe computer and a bunch of other stuff.

I anxiously await the big day. Not launch day. The day the big shiny tow truck comes back and gets the space shuttle and tows it to the school where the astronauts are waiting in their little space suits that look suspiciously like the paper suits that surgeons wear.

And today is the day. After it arrives at the “launch pad” at “Cape Canavereosho” (if Canaveral and Neosho School were a couple) the astronauts run a giant extension cord out the window of the fourth grade classroom and plug in the shuttle. All systems are go. Ready for lift off. Start the countdown and hope that extension cord is long enough to make it to outer space.


The ‘nauts have a great time. They do some experiments with plants, make space meals, eat dehydrated astronaut ice cream which actual astronauts don’t really eat. They play video games on the Apple IIe and generally live the life of an astronaut for the day. Don’t forget to workout, living in low gravity can cause muscle atrophy.

The space shuttle was a huge hit. Everyone in town had watched it evolve from a school bus without an engine to a launch-ready space shuttle. The fourth graders loved planning it all out and took pride in finishing such a huge project. Hands on science and technology is more fun than just reading about it. And when you have fun, you retain more knowledge about the subject and have a greater understanding of the concepts used.

Mrs. Brainiac has many fond memories of the space shuttle school bus and all the weeks it sat in her driveway. Her favorite memory is the day the tow truck came to take it away and blocked the driveway. At the exact time she had to leave for work. What fun it was driving her car across the yard and ditch to get out that day and onto the road! More exciting (and probably more dangerous) then getting to ride in a real space shuttle. Good times!

Maker Spaces: Appleton Maker Space Tour

Last week I traveled to Appleton, Wisconsin and visited the MakerSpace located there. It was located in a small building behind a hair salon. It is a great place for members to tinker, fabricate and collaborate in making projects that appeal to them. Each month members pay a fee to have access to all of the equipment, materials and storage located in the space. The president of the organization, Chris, gave me a tour. There were several large work areas for woodworking, metal work, electronics, planning and storage. All were equipped with the machines for an inventor to do hands on learning.

A maker space is a great space to have access to all of the various machines needed to invent at a fraction of the cost of purchasing these on your own. There were lathes, saws, planers, welders, drill presses, and many more machines that could be useful for anyone wishing to be creative. I really liked their planning room that had a floor to ceiling whiteboard that was 12 feet wide and 8 feet wide. Members can use the board for drawing, creating lists or planning a project.

Chris introduced me to one of the members who is building an airplane in the space. He had the frame and wheels already made and was working on the wings. It reminded me of the old days when early flight pioneers made airplanes in their garages.

Craft Stick Truss Bridgeu

These are the kinds of spaces that we need in schools! We don’t need
all of the fancy and expensive equipment, but we do need areas where students can invent, create, fabricate, and experience failure and success. A corner of a classroom with craft sticks, glue guns, wires, light bulbs, and any number of inexpensive items helps children use their hands and minds to invent. Let’s get away from this culture of constant testing and get back to the real world!

Hydroponics 101.4: Light Requirements


I’ve been growing plants using hydroponics for a few years now, both at home and in the classroom. For the first several years of doing hydroponics and aquaponics systems, I used a bank of T-5 fluorescent bulbs and they worked okay. But in this last planting, which I have set up in my basement, I purchased a bank of LED lights. I am passionately green and I read that LEDs are much more energy efficient and last much longer than any other type of bulb. I also read that LEDs can be tailored to provide the exact wavelengths of light for plants and flowers. You see, plants love light from the blue and red ends of the spectrum. While fluorescents provide some of that light, much of a fluorescent’s light is white and that is a waste of energy because plants use very little white light.

We’re currently in a series exploring Hydroponics {read our previous entries 101.1, 101.2, 101.3}.

The bank of LEDs was about $275 dollars. This was comparable to the cost of a T-5 bank of fluorescent bulbs, but I was astounded at the small size of the LED bank!


I was blown away by the light though! What the LED bank lacked in size, it more than made up for in intensity. The instructions stated that the light should be hung at least 24 inches above the plants. I was able to hang it at about 22 inches. I was stunned that the light covered an area of about 2×4 feet where the plants were located. This from a bank of lights that is five inches wide and 18 inches long! My fluorescent bank was 22 inches wide and 46 inches long.

I left the light on while I worked in the basement. After about 15 minutes I started to see everything in a green aura. The intensity and wavelength of the light was affecting my vision. I decided to turn off the light and construct an enclosure around my plants that had Mylar reflective material on the sides to reflect the light back on to the plants.


My plants are now bathed in blue and red light and are growing wonderfully.

Oh, and my vision is back to normal.

Why You Should Lie to Kids, Part 2

Mrs. Brainiac here, back with Part 2 of Why You Should Lie to Your Kids. Creativity, resilience, curiosity….all great traits that are encouraged by lying to your kids. And those traits result in kids becoming innovative and thoughtful adults that have the grit to get ahead by making mistakes, fixing them and moving on to become engineers, medical professionals and those guys that invent great snacks like Hostess  Cupcakes©.

I’m here today to share an amazingly simple method to increase your child’s curiosity, cognitive thinking, and problem solving skills by Telling Them Lies.

Let’s start back out ten years ago in an inner city fifth grade classroom. Jessica Brainiac, our teacher-daughter, was starting a unit on the Ice Age and glacial formations. As a culminating activity, she explained that the class would be taking a trip in a time-travel airplane back to the Ice Age after they completed their studies. What a great way to motivate kids to learn!

Most of these kids hadn’t done more than travel “up north” so you can imagine their excitement at traveling back in time!

In anticipation, they enthusiastically gathered information about the Ice Age and glacial formations, learned about fun stuff like how time-travelling planes stay in the air (Bernoulli’s Principle. What did you think, magic?), and what to pack.

And that's how the plane stays in the air! Easy-peasy.

And that’s how planes stay in the air! Easy-peasy.

Everyone was allowed one checked bag and one carryon. Miss Brainiac sent home permissions slips (which amazingly many parents actually signed), made them passports, and finally the big day arrived.

Miss Brainiac had set up rows of chairs like an airplane, numbered seats and all, in the all-purpose room. Miss Brainiac was dressed in her flight attendant/pilot uniform and welcomed the kids with a big smile. The students had packed blankets and snacks and wore nice warm jackets in spite of the warm fall weather. As she walked them outside on the “tarmac” to the “plane,” one little gal panicked and yelled, “Wait, I’ll be right back.” She came racing back from the classroom a minute later with a tissue in her hand. “Remember, Miss Brainiac? They didn’t have bathrooms and toilet paper during the Ice Age!”

The kids were pretty excited. They couldn’t believe their teacher had a flight attendent certificate in addition to a pilot’s license and a teaching license! And imagine the surprised and delighted expressions on their innocent little faces when they realized they WEREN’T REALLY GOING ON A PLANE! OR A TIME MACHINE! OR TO THE ICE AGE! Haha, what fun! Their sweet little cries of, “Hey, this isn’t a plane,” and “Hey, you aren’t a pilot.” And “No fair, we were supposed to go to the Ice Age,” filled the room. “You tricked us!” Haha! Joke’s on you, kids!

After everyone settled down and took their assigned seats (aisle, window, center) they buckled up and listened to the safety announcement. Miss Brainiac took the pilot’s seat and off they went. After a successful and smooth take-off, they were on their way to the Ice Age. Flight Attendant Jessica served up some teeny tiny bags of pretzels and complimentary beverages after putting the plane controls on autopilot. “Ice Age, the Movie” was shown as the inflight movie.ice age movie

The kids had a great time and at the end of it all, none of them realized that they had painlessly participated in a great learning activity on the Ice Age and glacial formations. And I’m pretty sure that those students remember more about the subject then whatever they did in other classes that year.

So, start lying to your kids. It’s fun for everyone and they might accidently learn something along the way.

Hydroponics 101.3: The Circulation Method


Picking up where we left off in our Hydroponics series… The circulation method of hydroponics is ideal for you if you have a few more dollars to spend (as compared to the more limited Kratky Method) and you would like your students to make a hydroponic system in the classroom. It is a great way to integrate the engineering design process and STEM into your curriculum as well as offer authentic learning to your class. It also offers you a way of integrating principles of chemistry and physics into your curriculum.


We’re currently in a series exploring Hydroponics and Aquaponics.
{Read the previous entries here Hydroponics 101.1 and Hydroponics 101.2}


In the circulation method, you need to provide a nutrient trough for the plants to bathe their roots in. This can be done in many ways. Two methods that I have worked with are a floating bed system and a rail system. With both systems I had great success.


With the floating bed system, have your students construct a sturdy box of 2×4 lumber about two feet wide and four feet long. Attach a piece of plywood on the bottom and drill a hole for a bulkhead attachment to allow water to drain from the bed to a reservoir below the bed. Next, place a rubber pond liner inside the box and cut a small hole in the liner to match up with the hole you drilled earlier. Screw down the bulkhead and tighten it so that water will not leak out of the box. Now cut 2 inch holes into a piece of ½ inch thick pink Styrofoam insulation board. I used a 2 inch circular hole saw in a drill bit and ran the drill BACKWARDS so that the Styrofoam was not shredded.


Now you are ready to fill the reservoir with water. I use a large plastic container (about 25 gallons) with a small aquaponics pump on the bottom and a hose running up to my growing bed. I fill the reservoir with water, add my nutrient solution, turn on the pump and circulate the water. Monitor the water height in the bed so that when you add your plant cups their roots are touching the water. I also would recommend you add a PVC pipe below by attaching it to the bulkhead with a PVC fitting so that water flows back to the reservoir.

Next we’ll explore light requirements, planting and monitoring your system.

Adding Tilapia to our High School Classroom Hydroponics System

Last Friday I spent much of my day with five high school students on a field trip to a tilapia farm to pick up the tilapia for our aquaponics project. We purchased 50 tilapia from R&D Fish Farm in Oshkosh, WI. The students spoke with one of the owners and garnered knowledge from an expert who has been raising fish for 12 years. It demonstrated to me how passion can impact learning. Each of these kids gave up their day off of school in order to make this trip. It was an opportunity for them to learn and interact about something they were interested in. Learning in this way fuels a student’s curiosity and give meaning to learning in an authentic way.


We returned to the high school’s greenhouse and spent another hour acclimating the fish to the temperature and pH of their new tank. From each day forward, these students will need to monitor the pH, temperature, ammonia, nitrites and nitrates in the tank which contains about 175 gallons of water. In addition to monitoring water quality, the fish will need to be fed five to six times per day. A challenge that will face the students in the very near future will be how to hold the water temperature at 80 degrees since the tank is in a greenhouse that can reach temperatures near 100 degrees.


The second tank that is fish ready will be for perch that we will buy this coming weekend. Perch need to be held in a tank with a water temperature of about 70 degrees. These kids face many challenges in the near future in keeping these fish alive. These challenges will require them to use creativity to come up with solutions. Mistakes will be made but they will learn and adapt to keep this project going. It is a joy as a teacher to work in a meaningful environment where the goal in not just to pass a test.

If you want to try hydroponics but aren’t ready to take the plunge in a large system, download our Windowsill Hydroponics guide. We give you step by step instructions with photos that make it easy to follow and use for personal use, homeschooling, or in your classroom.