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Did you know that before author and illustrator Beatrix Potter began her career writing the famous children's classics, she was a scientist?

In her new picture book Beatrix Potter, Scientist (illustrated by Junyi Wu), Lindsay H. Metcalf reveals how as a child Beatrix Potter was curious about plants and animals, but devoted her life as a young adult to studying fungi.

Like the illustration of Beatrix on the cover, the book focuses a lens on her lesser-known years as a mycologist (one who studies fungi). Although Potter had no formal schooling in science, Beatrix Potter was introduced to mushrooms  by a talented amateur named Charles McIntosh. He became her mentor and sent her samples to study. Beatrix made beautiful detailed drawings of each specimen. She also figured out a way to prove that new mushrooms grow from spores, something that wasn't well known at the time. However, like other women scientists in the 1800s and early 1900s, Beatrix Potter encountered resistance when she tried to share her findings.

After finishing the book, educators and parents will likely want to discuss with young readers the pros and cons of how Beatrix ultimately dealt with the rejection.

The back matter is extensive, and includes a section that gives more detail about Beatrix Potter's life and studies, a timeline, a bibliography and suggestions for further reading. It is well worth perusing.

Overall Beatrix Potter, Scientist will appeal to both young readers interested in STEM and also those interested in women's history. Investigate a copy today!

Activity: Draw or Paint a Fungus

What better way to celebrate Beatrix Potter's work than to make a detailed drawing of a mushroom.

First, look at some of Beatrix Potter's illustrations online (for example, here).

You will need some art supplies, such as:

  • Paper
  • Colored pencils
  • Crayons
  • Watercolor paints

Find a mushroom to draw.

Safety note:  A few fungi are poisonous, so avoid handling wild ones.

Fungi obtain nutrients by decomposing plants, particularly living or dead woody plants, so you will often discover them in forests.

The mushroom that we see is called a fruiting body. The fruiting body is like the flowers of a plant because it is how how a fungus makes more of itself or reproduces. The rest of the fungus is made up of threadlike strands called hyphae which form a mat called the mycelium. The mycelium is often hidden within the tree or soil and may grow for years unseen.

When conditions are right, a fungus produces its fruiting bodies. They often prefer cool, moist conditions and fall is a great time to find them.

Photograph by Karen Gibson

Some fruiting bodies have a stipe (scientific term for the stalk part). On the underside of the mushroom in the middle of the photograph you can see ridges. Those are called gills.

Photograph by Robert Pratt

Others form shelves. Sometimes the shelves are soft.

Sometimes the shelves are hard. These fruiting bodies may be called brackets or conks. They can be quite colorful.

If you have trouble finding a mushroom in nature, you may want to examine a cultivated mushroom from the grocery store instead.

Observe the mushroom closely and draw what you see.

You can find out more about fungi in these related posts:

Be sure to check out our ever-growing list of biographies of women scientists at Science Books for Kids.

Grade Level : Preschool - 3
Publisher : Albert Whitman & Company (September 1, 2020)
ISBN-10 : 0807551759
ISBN-13 : 978-0807551752

Disclosure: This book was provided electronically by the author. Also, I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

Come visit the STEM Friday blog each week to find more great Science, Technology, Engineering and Math books.

After talking about relatives of insects a few weeks ago, I realized that maybe we needed to take a step back and define the words I was using, like phylum. These are common terms used in biology, but it isn't always easy to remember how they relate to each other. Let's take a look at how scientists put living things in groups.

The science of organizing living things into groups is called classification. The Swedish botanist Linnaeus first proposed a system for grouping and naming organisms in the 1750's. The system is hierarchical with the upper levels including those below it.

If you are older, you may have learned something in school like "King Philip Came Over From Greater Spain" to remember the hierarchy of groups. Recently scientists have added a higher level, the domain and removed the Kingdom Monera. Plants, fungi, animals and protists belong to the Domain Eucharya.

This video explains the domains:

The kingdoms contains many distinct groups called phyla. Each phylum is divided into a number of classes. The classes are further divided into orders, families, genera, and finally, species.

Here is the classification hierarchy of the honey bee:

Domain:  Eucharya
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Arthropoda
Class Insecta
Order Hymenoptera
Family Apidae
Genus Apis
species mellifera
Common name: honey bee

Sometimes it can be difficult to visualize. If you are a visual person, try drawing some diagrams. Here's one for insects.

Classification Activities for Children

Up until recently, classification was mostly based on the physical characteristics of the organisms.

1. Sorting is an important precursor for classification for very young children.

Gather:

  • toys, balls, stuffed animals, etc.

For young children, sort by any feature you can think of.  You can sort by color, soft versus hard, shiny versus dull, by size. It's a great way to learn opposites, colors, shapes, and vocabulary words, too. Have fun!

Later graduate to sorting various toy animals by classes. Although is is best to use realistic models or stuffed animals, you can use pictures as well.

Start with the vertebrates, the  fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.What characteristics do fish have? (fins, scales, gills). How is a reptile, such as a snake, different from an amphibian, like a frog or salamander? (Dry skin, scales). How is a bird (with feathers and a beak) different from a bat (mammal)?

Once your child masters that level, add insects, spiders and other animals without backbones. You may also sort by other characteristics, such as carnivore (meat eater), herbivore (plant eater) or decomposer (eats dead plants). Make a box labeled with each characteristic for the child to place the objects in or simply make heaps on the floor.

What are some differences between the plant and the butterfly sitting on it?

2. Twenty questions

The guessing game “twenty questions” also can be modified to act like a classification key. Keys are used to identify living things and often utilize similar yes or no questions.

Have one person think of an object, preferably a living thing in this case. The point is for the others to ask yes or no questions, using narrowing the topic until someone can guess what the object is. The trick is that you are only allowed 20 questions.

Is it living or dead? Is it green? Does it have flowers? Does it have a backbone? Does it have feathers? Does it have scales? The characteristics that separate the kingdoms, phyla and classes can quickly narrow your focus to the correct group.

3. Build your own classification scheme.

Gather:

  • bag
  • paper clips
  • small balls
  • crayons
  • chalk
  • coins
  • pencils

To explore ways to classify things, have your children build their own classification scheme using objects from around the house. Fill a bag beforehand with a mix of items similar to those suggested above. Ask the children to group the objects. What characteristics did they use? Would the balls and coins go together because they are both round, or did the coins go with the paper clips because they were metal? Name the groups, and then mix the items again to come up with another system.

One of the fun parts of classification is that there aren’t any right answers, just best guesses. Scientists rearrange the groups all the time as they gather more information.

4. Older children may want to investigate the use of DNA to group and identify living things.

After reading yet another children's book that identified yeast as a type of plant - an archaic classification, they are really fungi - it's time to investigate these helpful organisms.

1. First of all, how do scientists know yeast are fungi and not plants? Obtain some baking yeast from a store. Carefully open the packet or jar and look inside. Have some plant seeds handy for comparison.

Consider the characteristics of plants:

  • They are multi-celled organisms that obtain their energy from photosynthesis.
  • They are green and contain chlorophyll.
  • They grow from seeds.

In contrast, fungi:

  • are organisms that obtain their energy from food digested externally.
  • They are not green, and do not contain chlorophyll.
  • They contain chitin, a protein found in animals.
  • Make more of themselves via spores or budding.

What color are the yeast particles in the yeast package? Are they green like plants? Even though they are not green, they still might be seeds. How would you tell? What happens when you add water to a seed? It swells up and over time, say a week or so, a small plant emerges.yeast

Try adding a teaspoon of yeast to 1/4 cup of warm water. What happens? Now add a little sugar, to serve as an energy source. What happens? What would happen if these were seeds of a plant?

Note:  Yeast organisms are actually unicellular and would be impossible to see without a microscope, so the baking yeast you examine is a processed form containing many cells.

2. Although we humans use yeast for baking or making beverages, in nature yeast are decomposers. Test the ability of yeasts to decompose common food stuffs. Gather:

  • banana (apples or bread will work too).
  • plastic bags
  • yeast

Cut the banana in half crosswise. Sprinkle 1 tsp of yeast onto one half piece of banana, and then place each half banana into separate bags. Close the bag, and leave them in a warm, dry place. Compare what happens in the banana half treated with yeast and the banana half not treated. Return twice a day and record the appearance of each half over a few days. Would the experiment be less valid if you treated one whole banana and left one whole banana untreated? Why or why not?

Compare the rates of decay to bread and apples treated with yeast to untreated samples. Interesting fact:  fruit flies don't eat fruit as larvae, but the yeasts that grow on fruit.

Related:

  • See our previous post about blowing up a balloon with yeast. You can substitute a few Tablespoons of granulated sugar for the molasses in the experiment.
  • Also our previous post on Fungi