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Review + STEM Activity: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Leo, one of our favorite young readers, stopped by the blog today. He’s in 4th grade and loves Legos, playing outside, and reading. Right now, he’s respecting the quarantine request, but his days aren’t so bad. They begin with recess and end with a field trip. This post is about what he does in between. This week, he read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and completed a STEM activity related to the book.

Book Overview

Born in Malawi, William Kamkwamba lived in a country overwhelmed by drought and hunger. But he loved learning about science. He read about windmills and dreamed of building one that would benefit his village. Only 2 percent of the nation had running water and electricity. His neighbors called him crazy, but William held fast to his goal. With a small pile of old science books, some scrap metal, tractor pieces, and bicycle parts, he worked doggedly to create an invention that would change the lives of everyone he knew.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is based on a true story about one boy, his incredible invention, and inspiring look at overcoming obstacles. His story proves that one person really can change everything.

If you have a younger reader at home who is anxious to do the project, please note that a picture book version exists. Here’s a YouTube reading of that story:

In Leo’s Words

Q: What is this book about?

A: William Kamkwamba built a windmill. He couldn’t go to school because his family didn’t have money. He built a windmill from junk and brought electricity to his house. Then he helped his whole community get electricity.

Q: What three important things did you learn about?

A: First, I learned about famine. Second, I learned how he built the windmill. Third, I learned he became famous for it.

Q: Who should read this book?

A: Leo thinks this would be a good book for a person of any age to read. “I wish I could have been there when the windmill was complete,” he said, “because it would have been cool to see it.”

“Whatever you want to do, if you do it with all your heart, it will happen.”

–William Kamkwamba

Book-Inspired STEM Activity

After reading the book, Leo studied how windmills generate electricity. Then he made a windmill of his own out of recycled items from home. The activity calls for 1 (1/2 gallon) OJ carton, 2-3 Styrofoam balls, some masking tape, a roll of string, 1 (3 oz.) paper cup, 1 (12″ x 1/4″) dowel, and 1 (3/8″) washer. For more information and directions on how to do this activity at your house, please watch the following YouTube Video.
Hands On: Engineering is Elementary Windmill assembly video:

Above: Leo makes and attaches the blades.

In case you need substitution ideas for materials, here are other things that could be used in a pinch:

OJ ContainerOatmeal canister, soda can box, Bota box
Wooden dowelKabob skewers, knitting needles, straw
Styrofoam ballsPlaydoh (too heavy and soft, but clay might work), Leo ended up using masking tape and pipe cleaners after a lot of trial and error
WashersOmitted from windmill design.  Used coins as weights for cups
StringYarn, ribbon
Paper cupPlastic cup, small box, make a cup out of foil
TapeMasking, scotch, painters, duct, etc
Water (to weigh down the base of the windmill)Unopened can of soda, soup, bag of rice

In addition to this activity, several other videos may be of interest.

  1. The 2007 TED Talk: Kamkwamba describes in the book:
  2. 2017 TED Talk:
  3. Trailer for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind on Netflix:
  4. Watch the full 4 lesson unit in a real classroom: search “EiE catching the wind designing windmills” on the EiE – Museum of Science Boston’s youtube channel.

For more STEM-inspired ideas, please check out Iowa STEM’s #TeachableMoment webpage:

Librarian Jennifer Leveck: 7 Great New STEM Middle Grade Fiction Books

Youth Services Librarian Jennifer Leveck (pictured above) knows kids and books. She works at the Franklin Avenue Branch of the Des Moines Public Library System. From preK to teen, she’s in charge of bringing the best youth programming and books to the community. We asked her to recommend some great middle grade titles with STEM elements for kids in grades 2nd-7th. Best of all, the library has copies (often multiple) of all these books.

“There are a lot more books coming out where the main character has a STEM interest–coding, gaming, scientific ways of thinking–and kids are checking them out,” Leveck noted. “Kids get excited to read about characters who like the same things they like.”

Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Overview from the Publisher: A heartwarming story about family, loyalty, and the hard choices we face in the name of friendship. Eleven-year-old Izzy feels as though her whole world is shifting, and she doesn’t like it. She wants her dad to act like he did before he was deployed to Afghanistan. She wants her mom to live with them at the marina where they’ve moved instead of spending all her time on Block Island. Most of all, she wants Piper, Zelda, and herself—the Sea Stars—to stay best friends, as they start sixth grade in a new school.

Everything changes when Izzy’s father invites his former interpreter’s family, including eleven-year-old Sitara, to move into the marina’s upstairs apartment. Izzy doesn’t know what to make of Sitara―with her hijab and refusal to eat cafeteria food―and her presence disrupts the Sea Stars. But in Sitara Izzy finds someone brave, someone daring, someone who isn’t as afraid as Izzy is to use her voice and speak up for herself. As Izzy and Sitara grow closer, Izzy must make a choice: stay in her comfort zone and risk betraying her new friend, or speak up and lose the Sea Stars forever.

What Jen loves about it: “This book is about the ocean and family dynamics. Placed in a coastal town, I love that the main character’s passion is mapping the ocean floor. It’s while she is measuring depths along the coast that the story develops. This book deals with big issues: friendship, divorce, mental health issues, bullying–but the plot and STEM elements are incorporated together so well that it’s never clunky.”

The Acadia Files series by Katie Coppens and Holly Hatam

Overview from the Publisher: The book presents five summer stories, each one followed by Acadia’s science notebook pages with her simple explanations and lively, whimsical drawings of natural phenomena. The Acadia Files is a fun introduction to the wonders of science, using real-world scenarios to make scientific inquiry relatable and understandable. Parents and educators can use The Acadia Files to let kids discover for themselves what it’s like to be curious about the world and to satisfy that curiosity with scientific thinking.  

What Jen loves about it: “The design of this book is really clever. It’s set up like a scientific notebook. The main character takes an issue in life and applies the scientific method to solve problems around her. The author incorporates complex topics, like genetics, and breaks it down into little tidbits that readers understand. We’re seeing more and more visual books like this, complete with graphs and illustrations. When kids graduate from picture books or early graphic chapter books, this format makes an easy transition.”

Cog by Greg van Eekhout and Beatrice Blue

Overview from the Publisher: Five robots. One unforgettable journey. Their programming will never be the same. Wall-E meets The Wild Robot in this middle grade instant classic about five robots on a mission to rescue their inventor from the corporation that controls them all.

Cog looks like a normal twelve-year-old boy. But his name is short for “cognitive development,” and he was built to learn. But after an accident leaves him damaged, Cog wakes up in an unknown lab—and Gina, the scientist who created and cared for him, is nowhere to be found. Surrounded by scientists who want to study him and remove his brain, Cog recruits four robot accomplices for a mission to find her. Cog, ADA, Proto, Trashbot, and Car’s journey will likely involve much cognitive development in the form of mistakes, but Cog is willing to risk everything to find his way back to Gina.

What Jen loves about it: “The main character is a robot, as are most of the characters. The author does such a good job of developing characters, including one named Trashbot. As they try to escape the evil corporation holding them prisoner, you really become invested in their lives.”

Emmy in the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido

Overview from the Publisher: In this innovative middle grade novel, coding and music take center stage as new girl Emmy tries to find her place in a new school. Perfect for fans of the Girls Who Code series and The Crossover.

In a new city, at a new school, twelve-year-old Emmy has never felt more out of tune. Things start to look up when she takes her first coding class, unexpectedly connecting with the material—and Abigail, a new friend—through a shared language: music. But when Emmy gets bad news about their computer teacher, and finds out Abigail isn’t being entirely honest about their friendship, she feels like her new life is screeching to a halt. Despite these obstacles, Emmy is determined to prove one thing: that, for the first time ever, she isn’t a wrong note, but a musician in the world’s most beautiful symphony.

What Jen loves about it: “This novel is in verse, so each chapter is a short poem. Both of Emmy’s parents are musicians, so the novel starts out incorporating musical words into the story. For example, the author writes about an “allegro smile.” But Emmy doesn’t love music as much as her parents do. She likes to code. By the end of the story, the musical words transition, and she takes on a coding mindset. In addition to being a good story, it’s really helpful to follow along with someone just beginning to learn code.”

Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Perez

Overview from the Publisher: From the award-winning author of The First Rule of Punk comes the story of four kids who form an alternative Scout troop that shakes up their sleepy Florida town.

When three very different girls find a mysterious invitation to a lavish mansion, the promise of adventure and mischief is too intriguing to pass up. Ofelia Castillo (a budding journalist), Aster Douglas (a bookish foodie), and Cat Garcia (a rule-abiding birdwatcher) meet the kid behind the invite, Lane DiSanti, and it isn’t love at first sight. But they soon bond over a shared mission to get the Floras, their local Scouts, to ditch an outdated tradition. In their quest for justice, independence, and an unforgettable summer, the girls form their own troop and find something they didn’t know they needed: sisterhood.

What Jen loves about this book: “This book is relevant to today’s climate. It deals with a friendship based on social activism. An eclectic group of girls come together to protest the unnecessary use of a feathered hat in one of their town’s ceremonies. I really liked all of the girls. They makes mistakes along the way, but that just strengthens their friendships.”

Nikki Tesla and the Ferret Proof Death Ray by Jess Keating

Overview from the Publisher: Ocean’s 11 meets Spy School in this hilarious illustrated middle-grade series featuring the world’s greatest minds. “Let the official record show that, I, Nikki Tesla, did not intend to destroy the world.”

There are only so many times a kid can invent an instrument of global destruction without getting grounded. So when Nikki’s death ray accidentally blows up her bedroom, she’s sent to the only place that can handle her. Genius Academy is a school for history’s greatest brains. Nikki feels like an outsider thanks to a terrible secret she can’t let anyone discover. But when her death ray is stolen, Nikki must stop worrying about fitting in and learn to play nice with her new classmates.

What Jen loves about the book: This is one of those action-packed boarding school books. Nikki gets sent away because she accidentally blows up part of her house. She creates tech inventions that always go wrong in some way. I like that the kids are on their own and have to ban together to save the world. In addition, all of the characters are named after famous geniuses throughout history, and they go on to inhabit the main qualities of each.”

Click’d by Tamara Ireland Stone

Overview from the Publisher: Click’d is a thrilling book about a seventh-grade girl named Allie Navarro, who creates an app that goes unexpectedly viral, turning Allie into a school celebrity.

Unfortunately, the glow of her fame starts to fade as an unanticipated bug threatens the privacy of her peers, causing embarrassment and havoc for those closest to her. Will Allie choose to shut down her game, knowing that her place in the Games for Good competition is on the line, or will she try to hide the problems in her application in hopes of being declared the big winner?

What Jen loves about the book: “I love that the main character makes an app that gets away from her. She has the best of intentions, but things still go wrong. It’s about creating technology and then realizing there are issues and problems with it. What happens if it hurts someone? Who is responsible for that? It’s very relevant to technology development today.”

To Jen Leveck for your spring STEM recommendations. If you find yourself with some extra time over spring break, head on over to the library for these titles and scads more! If you have trouble finding the perfect book, just ask one of the librarians in the children’s area. They’ll work some book magic and come up with an idea list.

If you do read one of these books (or another STEM-oriented title), please consider being interviewed for this blog. We’d love to hear from more readers! Email the Hub if you’re interested.

Happy reading and have a healthy spring break,

COVID-19 Library Updates

Located in Des Moines, Franklin and Forest Avenue are our closest libraries. We inquired as to what practices they were enacting to keep us all safe. Click HERE to learn more about the city’s plan. Or visit your local library’s website and learn how to safely use the library during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meet STEM Author Kourtney LaFavre

IF SUN COULD SPEAK will be available March 13, 2020. You can preorder here:

The Hub met author and former elementary teacher Kourtney LaFavre via Twitter when she sent out an all-call for author visit ideas. So we knew she loved kids, classrooms, and teachers! Next, one of our favorite Iowa STEM festival presenters, NASA Ambassador Dan Hoy, connected and shared some thoughts.

Then we decided, during these cold winter days, doing a blog on a STEM book about the warm and lovely SUN would be a perfect addition. Her book, If Sun Could Speak, is published by Clear Fork Publishing and available for pre-order now with a March 13 release.

In it, Sun takes on a larger-than life voice to guide us through a day, a year, the history, and the solar system. Most page turns also serve as a two-level read. The narrative voice is quick and spunky, but Kourtney adds another layer for readers who want to study the pages and take time for a deeper dive. Comic-book type frames add details in fun ways. When science terms are used, she takes care to add an explanation in simple terms.


Kourtney was gracious enough to to stop by the blog and tell us more about her book in her own words.



If Sun Could Speak is a first-person account that sheds light on the facts, history, and myths about its existence. Sun is out to impress and inspire readers to wonder and search for discovery. It’s a witty STEM-infused exploration of the center of our solar system.


The inspiration for this book idea came from my childhood. I think I was about five or six when I first discovered that the sun doesn’t actually rise and set. I had assumed that the sun was moving up and down in the sky, because the word RISE means to move upward.

That was the definition that my five year old self understood, and five year old brains are very literal. It totally blew my mind that it was the earth’s movement that created sunrises and sunsets. And I felt upset that I was mislead to believe inaccurate information.

I was frustrated whenever I heard people say anything about the sun RISING. That’s where the concept of a book told from the sun’s perspective began, to clear up any misunderstandings about the sun.

The character of the Sun has two goals when talking to readers. One is to share information about who Sun is and what Sun does. And the second is to inspire readers to wonder and search for discoveries.


Some of the most interesting things I learned while researching for this book were the different myths from other cultures about how the sun came to be. The most challenging was trying to take such large ideas and put them into words in a way that would make the ideas accessible to children. I enjoyed reading and learning about some of the people throughout history whose ideas influenced what we think and know about the sun.


As a former elementary teacher, I’m very excited about how this book can be used as a teaching tool. It’s jam packed with not only science information, but history and myths as well.

I hope that the biggest take away from “If Sun Could Speak” is to plant the seed that there are remarkable things happening all around you.

I hope that it encourages readers to look around and ask themselves, “Why is this happening? How did it come to be?” The search for truth never ends as long as you keep seeking. Science isn’t just what you know, it’s also a way to think. So while this book can be used as a tool to teach facts about science, history, and myths, it’s also a catalyst for scientific thinking. There will be a downloadable educator’s guide and Pinterest board available on my website. “If Sun Could Speak” provides opportunities to connect with the Disciplinary Core Idea of Next Generation Science Standards for grade K-4 including earth’s systems, earth’s place in the universe, and energy.


Some of my favorite STEM books for kids that I recommend as a companion:

  • The Planet Gods: Myths and Facts About the Solar System. Jacqueline Mitton and Christina Balit 
  • The Solar System: Out of This World With Science Activities for Kids. Delano Lopez and Jason Slater
  • Ada Twist, Scientist. Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
  • Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, Dr. Dominic Walkman and Ben Newman.
  • Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings. Douglas Florian
  • What Do You Do With An Idea? Kobe Yamada and Mae Besom
  • Here We Are: Notes For Living On Planet Earth. Oliver Jeffers.


IF SUN COULD SPEAK will be available March 13, 2020. You can preorder here:


I’d love to connect with readers! Here’s where you can virtually find me:
Twitter: @KourtneyLafavre
Website printables:

Dr. Renee Horton: Scientist-Author Extraordinaire

Dr. Renee Horton’s visit celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon walk.

Author, scientist, role-model: Dr. Renee Horton is whip-smart, hardworking, good-natured, and caring. She visited Des Moines in August. In a trip hosted by the Des Moines Public Library, she stopped by Drake University for a reception in her honor. She shared her book, her experiences with NASA, and her message on STEM and kids.

Horton’s life is the inspiration behind her book series Dr. H Explores. Currently, there are two books out, From Mercury to Mars and From Jupiter to Uranus, with two more forthcoming. Readers can also get Dr. H dogtags and a Dr. H stuffed toy.

What makes this author special is that she lives what she writes. Horton specializes in Materials Science and holds degrees in engineering, math, and physics. She works full-time at NASA as the Space Launch System (SLS) Lead Metallic/Weld Engineer and has won numerous awards for her professional work and community advocacy. And while you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to write books, it sure makes book talks interesting!

After her Des Moines visit, she took to a moment to talk with us about her incredible adventure into STEM literacy.

Visit Dr. Renee Horton’s website to learn more or purchase her books and merchandise.

Q. What inspired you to write for children?

A. I believe that every child is born curious with an active imagination, and we should allow them to explore to find themselves. The books are my way to impact their lives early, to help them stay curious, and create a desire to explore in a creative way.  It’s my way of letting the kid in me have fun. 

Q. What message do you hope to share with kids through your books?

A. First, I hope to provide a positive representation of inclusion of all in STEM while helping kids learn that everyone is different. The second thing I want them to walk away with is that STEM is fun. 

Q. What writing projects are you or will you be working on next?

A. The next writing project for Dr H Explores is Trip to the Moon coming out at the beginning August. Next, Dr H finally gets to meet Pluto in the book scheduled to release in October.  For a personal writing project, I am currently working with Kay Fenton Smith on writing my memoir that will detail my pain, my growth, and my happiness in life. 

For more information or to contact Dr. Renee Horton, please visit her website: We love her opening quote: “When you find your intersection between your talent and your passion, you find your true happiness.” It’s clear that Horton has found that intersection, and her enthusiasm helps pave the way for others on a similar path.

Thanks to the Des Moines Public library for sharing Dr. Horton’s visit with Drake University.

Author Grace Grundmeyer Writes Geode Adventure

Meet Grace Grundmeyer, author.
(Photo courtesy of G&R Rock Keepers.)

Authors, even very young ones, are inspired by things that happen in their lives. That is especially true for our talented 10-year-old friend, Grace Grundmeyer. She stopped by the blog to share her debut picture book: The Adventures of Eli and Lincoln: The Hidden Treasure.

Grace chose the names Eli and Lincoln, who are friends in the story, to pay tribute to her cousins who passed away. In the book, the boys stumble upon a geode while playing. They find it’s ugly on the outside and hollow on the inside.  Soon, they learn it’s a geode, find out it’s beautiful, and start a rock collection. To make it more visually challenging, there’s a hidden pick ax on every page.

Writing Process
Grace’s story started like most do. She wrote it out by hand on lined paper. But the process didn’t end there. “Once I got the story just how I wanted it,” said Grace, “my parents helped me locate an illustrator and publishing company.  I met with the illustrator a couple times to get each page just right.” After a final proof, she waited for the hard-cover copies to arrive.   “It was fun to see them all printed,” she added. Besides writing and editing the book, she spent a lot of time researching information.

Governor Kim Reynolds, Co-Chair of the Iowa STEM Initiative, stopped by Grace’s booth at the Iowa State Fair. Iowa’s official state rock is the geode.

STEM/Literacy Connections
The book is a perfect supplement to an elementary rock unit, classroom read-aloud, or bedtime story. On the last page, Grace included topics for teachers or parents to talk to kids about, titled Discussion Points. 

Grace shared a few highlights: “Some of the important lessons include how the beauty is on the inside (just like a geode) which can be used to discuss many important topics like bullying, self-esteem, or rock hunting.”

The book also promotes getting outside and going on an adventure. “Although a new adventure may make you nervous,” said Grace, “there are also exciting things that might happen or you may learn by experiencing something new.”

We asked Grace what advice she has for other people who want to write a book. She passed this along, “If you want to write a book, anyone can actually do it.  It takes time and you have to focus on just how you want it to be when it is all done.  I learned writing a book is harder than I thought, but it can be a fun process.”

More Info
Grace welcomes the opportunity to talk to others about her book and geodes in general. Visit her website for contact information on speaking engagements. To learn more about geodes, to buy a copy of the book, or get some geode jewelry and bling, visit Grace’s website: You can also find her book online at Mascot Books‘ website or Amazon.

Nature rocks! Grace’s whole family enjoys going on an outdoor adventures.

Book Review: The Radium Girls

Find this best-selling book, The Radium Girls by Kate Moore, at the library or in bookstores.

Avid reader and soon-to-be-middle-schooler, Averie, sat down with the Hub to review The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. Besides being a big fan of Marie Curie, Averie enjoys swimming, being outside, and animals. She recommends this book for anyone who is a fan of science and social justice.

General Overview:
Q: What is the book about?
A: The Radium Girls is the story of early twentieth century girls that worked on painting luminous watch dials with radium paint. they got extremely sick and filed a lawsuit.

Before the world realized the radium was a dangerous element, it was used in small amounts to paint clocks and dials for instruments used during WWI. The Government prized it for its glow-in-the-dark quality. At the time, women didn’t have many job options, but with so many men in active duty, they were needed to help with the war effort. Young, single women could made a lot of money if they landed this position. Each day the women went to work, they were slowly ingesting small quantities of the highly toxic material, and all eventually grew very sick.

The clock is ticking: women paint luminous dials in 1932. Photo from

In the end, even though the women could barely get out of bed or walk around, they sued their employer and justice and won!

Inspiring Read
Q: What makes this book so good?
A: It is an inspiring story about justice and the power of perseverance.

One unique element that fascinated Averie was the photo of the girls before they became sick.

Q: Who else might enjoy this book?
A: Anyone who has an interest in history and justice.

Author Jill Esbaum Weaves Facts into Nonfiction Magic

Picture books engage curiosity and set the stage for adventure and exploration. They allow children to think like scientists, asking questions and searching for answers. The best books teach the love of reading, but they also challenge us to connect with the world. National Geographic knows a thing or two about that, and so does Jill Esbaum.

You’ve likely seen Jill’s books in libraries, schools, and stores. She’s an award-winning Iowa author who has published 13 fiction and 22 nonfiction books, including Tom’s Tweet, which was named the Iowa Goldfinch Award and I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo, which earned a Chrystal Kite Award. While being well-known for her gift of creating colorful characters, lively language, and perfect rhyme, Jill has turned her talents toward weaving facts into magical prose for National Geographic children’s books.

Jill recently stopped by the blog to talk about her work with National Geographic, including her book: Little Kids First Big Book of Why 2. She was kind enough to answer a few questions.


Q: What makes the Little Kids First Big Book of Why 2 unique?

A: The goal of National Geographic’s Little Kids Big Book series is to help kids aged 4-7 understand the world, which is why there are titles covering everything from ANIMALS to OCEANS, from BUGS to SPACE. The first WHY book (written by Amy Shields) was such a hit that NG wanted another to continue providing answers to some of kids’s most often-asked questions. WHY 2 has 4 chapters, including ME, MYSELF, & I; FUN AND GAMES; AWESOME ANIMALS; and NATURE ALL AROUND.

The toughest thing about writing one of these books is coming up with brand new questions! There are 56 of them here, with many more facts sprinkled across each page, as well as call-out questions intended to get kids thinking.

Q: What are some ways teachers and parents could use this book? 

A: Each title in the Little Kids Big Book series has a wealth of back matter, including a spread that suggests to parents ways they might extend the fun beyond the book. For example, WHY 2 has a spread titled “Why do I yawn?” At the back of the book is a fun activity that encourages kids to experiment with whether or not yawning is contagious.

Another spread in the book is “Why are dinosaur names so long?” and a corresponding activity encourages kids to pretend they’ve discovered a new dinosaur in their backyard and come up with a name for it. Within each chapter are also easy, small experiments called “Try This!” 

Q: How many hours go into the research and creation of a book like this?

A: Researching and writing one of these books takes hundreds and hundreds of hours. The research is especially important, of course, as National Geographic has a long-standing reputation for quality and accuracy. Fortunately, I love researching, tracking down the hows and whens and whys on any given subject.

One research tip I often share with kids at school visits:  When researching something, look beyond the facts people already know. Dig for juicy facts that make you say, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” 

Q: What’s your favorite part of this book?

A: I’m always happy when a book has a chapter about animals, because I learn so much! In this book, I enjoyed learning about things like the miraculous abilities of a dog’s nose. Did you know each nostril smells independently? That while human noses have 6 million “smelling cells” that send signals to our brains, a dog’s has 300 million of them? Sniffing another dog can tell them the age of the other dog, whether it’s male or female, what it has been eating, and even the dog’s mood. Amazing!

But this book has pages and pages filled with facts like this. That makes them so fun to write. I love becoming an expert on dozens of topics….Too bad I can’t retain every single thing I learn. But I am pretty good at trivia events. 😉


Besides writing (and trivia), Jill is an incredible writing teacher, hosting weekend retreats, workshops, and conference sessions. She hosts a blog called Picture Book Builders, featuring the best new books, introducing readers to authors and illustrators, and reflecting on the best of craft. Jill also welcomes author visit invitations, where she talks to kids about writing, research, revision, and more!

Want to learn more about Jill?

Purchase the book.

Visit her website.

Follow Jill on Twitter.

Sign-up to receive Picture Book Builders Blog notifications.

Infusing Mathematics into Storytime

I recently had the privilege of attending a Colloquium on Early Mathematics Learning with Dr. Megan Franke from UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.  The workshop was put on by Grand View University’s Jacobson Institute for Innovation in Education.  Dr. Franke is the 2018 Jacobson Visiting Scholar.

During the workshop, Franke demonstrated some ways to infuse any story time with mathematics, beginning with a Describe, Draw, Describe.

Describe, Draw, Describe

Geometry is all about relationships and movement in space.  Picture books offer opportunities to have conversations with young learners about spatial relations.

According to Stanford University’s DREME TE website, which is a math resource for early childhood educators:

Spatial language provides children with essential tools to describe their environments and negotiate their wants and needs (“No, I don’t want that one, I want the one under it!”). And, it turns out, adults’ and young children’s use of spatial language predicts children’s skills at spatial problem solving later on. Spatial language includes words describing location/position (under, in front of), attributes (long, high, side, angle, same, symmetrical), orientation and mental transformation(left, turn, match), and geometric shape names (rectangular prism, triangle, sphere). [Photo from DREME TE blog]

Dr. Franke demonstrated an activity she called Describe, Draw, Describe. It’s a technique that anyone can couple with story time to help kids practice their spatial and communication skills.  Note that the activity is not about copying the original image, it’s about practicing spatial relations.

Franke used the book There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins as her example.

Here’s how Describe, Draw, Describe works:

  1. After reading a picture book, pick one place in story to go back to.
  2. DESCRIBE: Return to that page or picture and ask “What do you notice?”
  3. DRAW: Ask students to “Draw what you see.”
  4. DESCRIBE: When they are done drawing, invite them to “Talk about what you drew.”

Tips for Educators and Parents:

When reading as story as a catalyst for a mathematics conversation, Dr. Franke suggests:

  • During the story, pick one place to pause and ask a math question, which could be based on numbers, spatial relationships, shapes, etc. Be mindful of interrupting too much and think carefully about your questioning.
  • Don’t intervene too much! Make it your practice to put the story first, keeping it alive by limited interruptions.
  • Pick one place to go back after the story is over. (This is where you do Describe, Draw, Describe)

Note: Draw, Describe, Draw can also be done using works of art for an art and mathematics infusion.

Scaffolding Skills: Early Childhood and Beyond

Reading picture books is a strategy to help develop mathematical language. It puts the terms into context and provides a visual way to remember them. When students have the language of spacial relationships, they have a scaffold to support geometry skills. This helps them articulate directional relationships, draw models, and understand use of space and time.

Consider this strategy when drawing simple geometric shapes and turning those shapes into 3-D renderings. An example is when a square becomes a cube so that a student can determine volume. They can draw a better model if they understand spatial relationships, and modeling is the key to simple and complex geometric shapes.

To the left are a few more books that lend themselves to spatial skills, but any picture book can be used.



Want to Learn More?

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Post by Dr. Sarah Derry, SC STEM Hub Manager and parent to three energetic boys.

This blog is dedicated to connecting STEM and literacy. If you have ideas for this blog OR would like to be a guest blogger, please email the Hub.

SCI Book Recommendation–Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code

SCI Scale-Ups

     The Science Center of Iowa (SCI) set out to do ground-breaking work all across Iowa. If all students couldn’t get to the SCI, then the SCI would try to reach all students.
     To accomplish this, they created STEM curriculum for PreK-12 students: Pint-Size Science and Making STEM Connections. Both programs are part of the Iowa STEM Initiative’s Scale-Up Program, and both feature incredible books.
      We caught up with Jolie Pelds (pictured right), SCI’s Director of Innovative STEM Teaching. Pelds introduced us to the books featured in this year’s kits and her new favorite read–Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code written by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by Katy Wu. When I asked Pelds why she liked it so much, she said “just look at the first page” (see it below).

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code

“If you’ve got a good idea, and you know it’s going to work, go ahead and do it.”
–Grace Hopper
     Who was Grace Hopper? Even the end sheets tell the story: “Rule breaker. Chance taker. Troublemaker. AMAZING GRACE.” Beginning as an young girl interested in how everyday things worked, Hopper took things a part to learn more about them. Her parents encouraged her curiosity.
     At age seven, Hopper dismantled several clocks in her house to find out what made them tick. She finished high school two years early and then attended Vassar College. Dedicated to making a difference in the World War II effort, Hopper enlisted in the U.S. Navy and embarked on a lifelong military career writing computer programs.
    The book is full of delightful anecdotes. For example, after finding a moth trapped inside a navy computer, she coined the phrase computer bug.
“She didn’t wait for someone else to figure it out–she came up with solutions herself!”
–Jolie Pelds
     “It’s an awesome book,” said Pelds, “because she’s a rebel and a hacker in the way she thinks. She had the ability to take something difficult and make it easier. She didn’t wait for someone else to figure it out–she came up with solutions herself!”
     Hopper’s legacy lives on today. She revolutionized how we use computers, creating what would become COBOL, a common programming language that is still used around the world. Hopper served as a trailblazer for others, especially women, who wanted the challenge of solving difficult problems while defying expectations of the era.

Enter to WIN a CODE/STEM prize extravaganza! 

From Rosie Revere, Engineer to How to Code a Sand Castle to On a Beam of Light: the Story of Albert Einstein, do you have a favorite STEM picture book? If so, please send us an email with the 1.) title, 2.) author, and 3.) why you like it so much. All emails received will go into a drawing for a prize extravaganza!
  • Open: August 1, 2018
  • Deadline: all emails must be received on or before August 10, 2018
  • Email:
  • Announcements: all prize recipients will be notified via email by August 12, 2018

Get This Book: What’s Math Got To Do With It?

The Hub asked Drake professor Dr. Maryanne Huey for ideas on working with young students on math confidence. She recommended the incredible resource: What’s Math Got To Do With It by Jo Boaler. Currently, Boaler is a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University. She also created a website called YouCubed and given TED Talks.

This is one of those rare, important books that every new parent and teacher should read. Boaler explains the importance of introducing math literacy at a young age. She identifies classrooms that consistently develop strong math students and how those teachers do it, and she looks at what parents can do to constantly enrich math at home.

Boaler cites a recent study in which the United States ranked 36 among 64 developed countries across the world. She says that when middle school students asked if they’d rather do math or eat broccoli, over half said they’d rather eat broccoli. While this is humorous, what’s not funny is that many students go into the world with insufficient math skills. The top paying, fastest-growing jobs in the world require employees with strong math skills. If you want a great career = learn math!

But the best part of the book, for me, involves the challenges interspersed through the book. Here are three to check out, but know all of her recommendations are awesome.

1. Page 16: Fibonacci’s Sequence

We loved showing the Golden Ratio, as it’s proof math is everywhere. From the spiral of a snail shell to the spin of hurricane to the way a flower bloom opens, evidence is everywhere! Here’s a website that helps explain this concept. You’ll never walk outside again without thinking about math.

2. Page 170: Tangrams

Introduce geometry in a fun way with tangrams. Preschool kids love the colors and older kids enjoy the puzzle challenge of the project. There’s a website that offers free, online tangrams for teachers and parents to use.

3. Page 211: Race to 20

This is a simple game two people can play in the car. In the game, two people race to reach 20, staring at 0 and using integrals of 1 or 2. While you’ll eventually realize the key to success, the game can be modified by changing the ending number or the integrals used.

Not everyone needs to major in life, but the problem-solving skills learned transfer to all of life’s situations.

In the last chapter, Boaler talks about math’s future: “Let’s move together from the mathematics trauma and dislike that has pervaded our society in recent years to a brighter mathematical future for all, charged with excitement, engagement and learning.”

Kids are born to love numbers. From the first time they hold up their pointer finger when asked their age, to figuring out how much candy they can buy with piggy bank savings. And it takes all of us to nurture their curiosity and ability. If you want to learn how, check out this book.

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