Swashbuckling Scientists

Jolly Roger

Pirates loved science!

In my head, you say this to your kids or your class and everyone rolls their eyes. But, the fact is, life on the high seas wasn’t possible without science; every sailor worth his salt had a pretty decent handle on science, at least as it pertained to sailing.

What do I mean and how can you prove it? You can find out in “Swashbuckling Science”, our latest Milton’s Marvels of Science demonstration, beginning in August. But, if you can’t make it, I have a few activities to help out at home or in the classroom.

Experiment: Pulleys & the Ship’s Rigging

Sailing required the use and knowledge of simple machines like pulleys. Rigging on sailing vessels wasn’t just lashed to a mast; sails were lowered and raised through the use of rope and pulley systems. Even hoisting a Jolly Roger needed a little mechanical know how.

So, how would your student sailors, pollywogs if we’re talking a Navy fleet, fair if a squall at sea wrecked their pulleys? Would they understand them enough to repair them? Give out materials and challenge groups to build a pulley and/or pulley system.

Materials suggestions: ribbon spool, dowel rod, string, duct tape, scissors

Experiment: Take the Wind

Once the pulleys are fixed and sails mended, it’s time to take the wind! But harnessing the wind to power a ship was no simple matter; in fact, it’s physics.  For instance, how would a ship keep moving towards its destination if the wind wasn’t blowing in the same direction? The answer isn’t simple: tacking, travelling close to the wind, and  Bernoulli’s Principle all factor in.

But, for our most novice sailors, we need to begin at the beginning and that’s figuring out just where the wind is coming from.

For this experiment you need a plastic bag (or one for each person) and a compass (if you want to know the compass direction of the wind). Then, go outside on a windy day and have one student hold up the bag and “catch” the wind with it.  Have the student with the compass work out the direction.

Experiment: Sail on!

If everyone is on board, give your groups one last challenge: Build a ship!

Mind you, I mean one that won’t sink and is probably only fit for shipssailing an ant across a sink full of water. Load up on materials and see who can come up with a ship that 1) Doesn’t sink and that 2) they can attempt to race across a baby pool or other small, controlled body of water.

Material suggestions: bottle corks, cork sheets, clay, straws, toothpicks, wire, bottle caps, craft sticks, juice cartons, and any other odds and ends you have handy!

Now, make sure they use some pirate lingo and you’ve got a pirate day and a half! Match your day with ours and be a pirate for an entire weekend when its all pirates all day at the Clay Center, Saturday, August 9th!


Stop Motion Film Making

This week in our Virtual Stories Summer Discovery Camp, middle school-aged students brought their storytelling skills to life with technology.  They spent two days planning a story and experimenting with various forms of digital recording to determine if they wanted to use stop motion animation or shoot in live action.

Three students from the camp decided to try out the Stop Motion app by Cateater, LLC which is available at the Apple App Store.  The App Store offers a free version and a purchase option of $4.99.  While the free version is a great way to try before you buy, we recommend the purchase app with built in features such as theme music, sound effects and themed text bubbles.

The Virtual Stories campers had a great time creating a film from start to finish and realized how long it takes to make a minute-long film in stop motion!

Check out a few of the features created this week and stop by this weekend to bring your own story to life during the grand opening of our new What’s Your Story? exhibit in  STEAMworks gallery!


Truffula Trees

Truffula Forrest 2

A Truffula Forrest on my desk! What a great way to end a work day!

I had a small bunch of tissue paper flowers left over from a Milton’s Marvels of Science demonstration and decided to hang them around my cubicle; suddenly I was seeing the flowers as the Truffula Trees from The Lorax, my favorite of the wonderful works of Dr. Seuss.

It seemed like a no brainer to make the trees from the tissue paper flowers and some construction paper. It wasn’t quite as simple as I thought, but below you’ll get instructions and the benefit of a lot of trial and error for making your own forrest for a very special story time craft, a bonus to a section on environmentalism, or just for fun.


Construction Paper

Tissue Paper


Pipe Cleaners

Pringles cans and/or paper towel rolls



Truffula Tops

1. Collect your materials!

2. Prep your materials by cutting some of your construction paper  and/or your tissue paper into strips. (We used both, but I suggest the tissue paper strips as the flexibility it provides is important in later steps.)

Truffula Strips

3. Glue strips onto your paper. (I suggest liquid glue. Don’t forget to let it sit and get a little tacky before actually sticking anything together.)

Truffula Trunk glued on

4. Once it dries, wrap and glue around the form for you trunk (e.g. paper towel roll or Pringles can). If you don’t have anything to use as a form we did have success just rolling and gluing the construction paper (with the aid of a paper clip or two while drying).

Truffula Tops

1. Cut your tissue paper into large rectangles (1/2- 1/3 the size of a regular piece of tissue paper) and stack. For larger flowers, you’ll want around 20 pieces of the cut paper.

Truffula Tissue Paper

2. Fold the paper as you would a fan.

Truffula Flower Folding 1

Truffula Flower Folding Final

3. Secure at the center with pipe cleaner.  The pipe cleaner will act as a “stem”.

Truffula Flower Secure

4. Next, cut each side in order to shape you Truffula Tree. For this project, I cut deep points. 

Truffula Cut

5. Then, fan each side out.

Truffula Spread

6. Next, slowly peel each layer of tissue paper away from the center. Do not do all of one side before moving to the next; instead, alternate sides after every few layers. Don’t forget to be gentle! Tissue paper if fairly fragile.

Truffula Flower Separation

7. Now, insert your top into your completed trunk.

Truffula Forest 1

8. Repeat as necessary to create your very own Truffula Forrest!


with Jesse