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Our book today, Doable Renewables:  16 Alternative Energy Projects for Young Scientists by Mike Rigsby, is full of creative new ideas and information. Do you remember in our post about smart materials (the materials that respond to the environment), we were looking for a source of nitinol (nickel-titanium alloy) wire? This book not only lists a source, but also uses nitinol springs in projects.

Mike Rigsby is a professional electrical engineer and he has a noble cause for writing this book. He has come up with projects to investigate various forms of renewable energy in the hope at least one of them will spark a young person to discover something that will change the world. His projects include making engines that use heat as a source of energy (including one with nitinol springs), solar energy, wind energy and wave energy. Each project is explained clearly, with a detailed list of supplies and numerous black and white photographs showing the assembly, as well as the finished project.

Before we get too excited, though, let's do the reality check. Safety is one concern. Some of these projects have steps that could potentially cause injuries, especially those that involve cutting. Unlike many of the activities found in children's science books, some of these projects are not made from items lying around the house. Many will require the purchase of specialized pieces of equipment or supplies from science and technology suppliers. For example, the nitinol springs are available from Jameco Electronics, part number 357835. As of today, they cost $45.95 for a 4 pack. The bottom line is that this book is for serious older children or young adults who enjoy engineering and inventing, and who preferably have an experienced adult mentor.

That said, do you have a science fair coming up soon? Doable Renewables: 16 Alternative Energy Projects for Young Scientists is a wonderful resource sure to generate innovative science fair projects.

In fact, the book inspired us to do some of our own investigations:

1. Stirling tin can engine

In chapter 4, Mike Rigsby suggests purchasing a Stirling engine to explore this technology investigated by Reverend Dr. Robert Stirling way back in 1816 (see our Amazon suggestions below). The Stirling engine uses heat to do work, and is known to be very quiet in comparison to the internal combustion engine.

Rigsby also mentions that there are instructions for building your own on the Internet, so of course we had to look. We found quite a few examples of Stirling engines you can make at home plus numerous videos of the engines in action. Here is one example of a fan Stirling engine (note: there is a pop-up ad).

The instructions can be found at Easy to build Stirling engine

There is more about how Stirling engines work at How Stuff Works.

2. Radiometer

We already had a radiometer, so we dusted it off and tried it out. A radiometer is a glass bulb that looks like a light bulb. Inside are 4 tabs suspended from wires. Those tabs are reflective on one side and black on the other. When placed in sunlight, the tabs rotate like crazy.

The Crookes radiometer caused quite a stir in its time, because no one was quite sure how it worked. Several hypotheses were proposed and shot down. Eventually the idea of thermal transpiration was found to be the one most generally accepted. It involves the movement of gases from the warmer side of the tab (the black side) to the cooler, reflective side. In any case, the only energy supplied is that from the sun.

3. We have a previous post on Windmills and wind power that also relates to this topic.

We hope this inspires you to try a few new projects with renewable energy. Be sure to let us know how they turn out.

Reading level: Ages 9-12 (Amazon)
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Chicago Review Press; Original edition (October 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 1569763437
ISBN-13: 978-1569763438

This book was provided for review.

Stirling Engines at Amazon

Other scientific supplies suggested in the book:

Here at Growing with Science I usually concentrate on great nonfiction, but I came across a fiction series that some of you might be interested in. Books in the Doyle and Fossey, Science Detectives series by Michele Torrey and illustrated by Barbara Johansen Newman each contain four science mysteries, plus in the back are instructions for seven activities and experiments related to the stories that you can try yourself.

Although the covers and titles may look a bit scary, the mysteries themselves are pretty straightforward.

In The Case of the Barfy Birthday, the detectives Doyle and Fossey investigate whether their client accidentally poisoned her sister, help save some birds, do a bit of ghost busting, and figure out how to get a pig out of a pit. Note to the squeamish: The first case does involve vomit.
The Case of the Gasping Garbage sends the detectives to the laboratory to find out why the garbage can is making odd noises, has them figuring out a way to help frogs, investigating the case of a stuck truck, and using chromatography to identify who wrote a love letter.
Will The Case of the Mossy Lake Monster be their last? After taming the monster, Doyle and Fossey discover why a cat won't eat, find a way to help penguins covered with oil (a story straight out of the news), and reveal a political prankster.
The Case of the Crooked Carnival actually starts with the detectives looking into a report of ghosts in an old house. After they stop an alein invasion (of plants), Doyle and Fossey solve the mystery of a carnival game, and discover a problem with the town bridge.
In The Case of the Graveyard Ghost, Doyle and Fossey have to get their client out of a laundry chute, solve the mystery of some wrecked roses, reveal yet another ghost, and investigate a case of a rare bird.

The mysteries in these books are fast-paced and interesting. Doyle and Fossey are a bit over the top, but definitely likable characters. The activities and experiments are kid friendly. (You know how much I love when books provide hands-on activities to reinforce learning.)

I did find a few minor flaws in some of the books. For example, although billed as a microbiologist, the author states that yeasts are plants in The Case of the Gasping Garbage. Modern classification schemes group yeasts with the fungi.

I also wondered why in The Case of the Crooked Carnival, the alien plants are called "purple loosegoose." In the back the author identifies a true weed, purple loosestrife. I guess the funny name injects a bit of levity?

In any case, if your children are interested in fiction and mysteries, these books might just entice them to try a bit of science as well.

The books were provided for review.


Today let's use the recently released book  Astro: The Steller Sea Lion
by Jeanne Walker Harvey and Illustrated by Shennen Bersani to explore an interesting sea mammal. Astro-the-steller-sea-lion

Astro, who was orphaned at birth and raised by humans, has become an ambassador for his species. If we could interview Astro, here's what he might have to say:


Interviewer (from now on in bold): Can you start by you telling our audience what kind of animal you are?

Astro (plain text):  I am a Steller sea lion.

Does that mean you are stellar, like a star?

No, my species is named for Mr. George Wilhelm Steller, a famous explorer and naturalist who discovered us in Alaska in 1741.

I have been to California and seen California sea lions, are you one of those?

No, my species tends to be larger and lighter colored. We are also much less common. In fact, those of us that live along the eastern Pacific coasts are threatened, and those along the western Pacific coasts are endangered.

What does that mean?

It means that if people aren't careful we could go the way of the Steller's sea cow.

What is a Steller's sea cow? I've never heard of it.

The Steller's sea cow was another sea mammal named by Mr. Steller in 1741. They looked sort of like the manatees now found in Florida. They were gentle plant-eating giants. Because the sea cows were good to eat, they were extinct only 27 years after Mr. Steller found them.

Yikes, that is sad. Hope that doesn't happen to your species.

With luck, this new book will help inform many people about us.

Tell me about "your" new book.

Jeanne Walker Harvey has written the story of my life up to now. She explains how I was orphaned at birth on an island off the coast of California. A scientist found me and took me to the Marine Mammal  Center. The humans took really good care of me. In fact, whenever they tried to send me back to the wild, I just kept coming back to them. Finally, they found a home for me at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, where I live now.

And you know the best part?

What's that?

Jeanne is donating a percentage of the royalties from the book to both the Marine Mammal Center and to Mystic Aquarium.  Think of all the sea creatures like me that will help.

Anything else about the book?

What I want to know is how Shennen Bersani did those fantastic illustrations. She always shows my best side.

Hey, I thought I was asking the questions.

Didn't you write to her?

Yes, I asked her how she made the illustrations and here's what she said:

"I've been using colored pencils for a long time, I've even taught classes and workshops on their use... so most of what you see in Astro is colored pencil on Arches watercolor paper, with a splash of acrylic paint."

How are the colored pencils so rich? They look like photographs, only much more luminescent.

"Layers!  Layer upon layer of pencil is used with a 'toothy' paper.  Layers are the best way to explain it.  Does that explanation help?  I use a graphite pencil, nothing fancy there, to draw out the image on the Arches.  (You can see some of my actual sketches turned into coloring pages on the Sylvan Dell website under Astro Teaching Activities.)  Then I color them in with the colored pencils, and highlight some areas with acrylic paint."

Many of the people look like my real friends. How did she do that?

About the models, Shennen Bersani said:

"I traveled cross-country to step in Astro's, umm flippers.  I met with some of the actual people who worked with Astro - and included likenesses of them when possible. I also had fun including my family members, friends, neighbors, and myself."

Isn't that fun? We should tell the children in the audience to check out Shennen Bersani's picture in the back of the book and on her website, and then look for her in the illustrations. It will be our little secret.

Would you tell her that I appreciate all her hard work?

I think she knows. So, Astro, do you think there will be a sequel to your book?

Actually, I was thinking I'd make a great movie star!


If you are interested in using this book as a teaching tool, visit Sylvan Dell Publishing's Astro page for Teaching Activities in the form of a .pdf booklet.

Check out how you can use zoo or aquarium observations as a science project at Dragonfly TV.

The Sea World Education Department has downloadable .pdf teacher's guides on Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses (scroll down page for links), as well as other ocean-related topics.

Have you ever seen the California sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco, California?


The California Academy of Sciences has a video that explains why their numbers have recently decreased and also why tagging certain individuals gives us useful information.

And here's a video of Astro in action. I think he's right, he would make a great movie star.

Disclosure: The book was provided for review. Also, I am an affiliate for Amazon. If you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.