November 1, 2020

Get Outside and Get Inventing!

by guest-blogger Jennifer Swanson

Want to find some amazing ways to use your imagination and explore things right from your window or in your own backyard?  Awesome. Then this project is for you.

First, answer this question. What do you get when you combine animals and engineering? Biomimicry, of course. Biomimicry is engineering inspired by nature. Engineers who work with biomimicry study how animals and nature work and then mimic it or take inspiration to solve human problems. That is the topic of my new book, BEASTLY BIONICS: Rad Robots, Brilliant Biomimicry, and Incredible Inventions Inspired by Nature. (NGKids Book, 2020) 

Bionics-inspired engineering means watching how a bird flies help you figure out how to build an airplane, or maybe how to quiet a loud fan in your house. Sound intriguing? I think so!

This gecko ... 

 (Image from Beastly Bionics, 2020, NGKids Books) 

... could inspire an engineer to make a robot like this:

(Image from Beastly Bionics, 2020, NGKids Books)

Why a robot gecko? Well, geckos have sticky feet that can climb anything. If a human could have that ability, they might be able to climb walls, windows to clean them, or even the side of a cliff. 

When you’re designing a biomimetic robot, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What characteristics does the animal have that are useful?
  • How can these characteristics help humans?
  • Can the characteristics be imitated?

Let’s see how it works. Watching an elephant might inspire this: 

A robotic arm that allows people to reach for things more easily off a high shelf. Get it? The elephant uses its trunk to do that, so a robotic arm that looks and acts like the elephant’s trunk would do the same. That is biomimicry. 

Now it’s YOUR turn to design something: 

----------------- Get Outside and Get Inventing! -----------------

Materials needed: • journal or notebook • pencil • patience and imagination

Follow these directions:

Observe It!  

Ask yourself: 

  • What is the coolest thing this animal does? 
  • How can that be used to create something that will help humans?

Answer these questions in your journal.

Draw it!

Draw a picture of the animal in your journal.

Draw a picture of the helpful attribute that the animal has and how it can be turned into something that can help a human, a robot arm, an easy gripper, or even a special design. 

Design it!

Gather materials and see if you can make a model of your idea. It can be out of building blocks, paper, cardboard, or whatever supplies you have. If you have access to robotics materials, and can code something, that works, too. 

Test it out!  

See if it works. Then  present your idea to the class or to your parents. Ask them if they understand how it’s useful to the world and if they’d use it? 

Take feedback and then make adjustments (just like an engineer would).

HAVE FUN with this! And if your parent’s allow, tag me on Twitter or Instagram (@JenSwanBooks) with a picture of your design. I’d love to see your creativity. GO STEM!


Jennifer Swanson is the award-winning author of more than 40+ nonfiction books for children, mostly about science and technology. Jennifer’s love of STEM began when she started a science club in her garage at age 7. 

   Her books have received many accolades including starred reviews, Booklist Best Tech books list, Green Earth Book Honor Award, a Florida Book Award, and multiple California Reading Association awards, and National Science Teaching BEST STEM awards. Her Brain Games book was #13 on The 50 Best Science books Ever Written and her Save the Crash-test Dummies book is on the AAAS-Subaru Longlist for MG STEM books. 

   She is also the creator of the STEM Tuesday blog, STEAMTeamBooks promotion group and creator and cohost of Solve It! for Kids, a STEM podcast for kids and families where Jennifer encourages kids (of all ages) to engage their curiosity and DISCOVER the science all around them! Visit her website,, find her on Facebook, or on Twitter, or Instagram @JenSwanBooks.

October 5, 2020

The Essential Art of Asking Questions!

As those who know me know, I like to randomly “chat people up.”  In fact, doing so is a proven technique of journalists who often like to get interviews going by asking easy questions before they move onto serious ones. Which what I did when I talked my family, friends, and others doing research for my new book Unveiled!  

For my ghostly research,, I acted like an historian. I went to historical societies and online sites for academic research. For others I relied on my wonderful Cincinnati Public Library for old books, newspapers, and magazine articles. Blog posts are also an ok start, though I pay careful  attention because often they make errors of fact.

What I tell kids is this:

               You can think of an historian as a detective doing an investigation. He or she asks a ton of questions:






And then later on … how?

And even later…. what if?

So, how does a writer of history go about investigating?  That answer would be:

               Research!  In the course of writing this book, I did a boatload of exploring.

               I made a virtual dig into the graves of all the people you will read about, and I ended up learning new things about old stuff I’d studied in school

But the best fun was asking people around me: “Do you believe in ghosts?” In the  introduction, I wrote about the Q&A I had with two sixth grade girls. Their answers spanned the realm of possibilities: “No,” “Maybe,” and “We know someone who…..” The same with my former neighbor—and what a surprise she gave me!*

            *For that, you will have to read the Afterword in the book…..:)

The point is: Encourage kids to act like reporters and ASK QUESTIONS of the folks around them! If they don’t –or if you don’t–you will never hear the answers. Think what you might be missing.

To get kids started in the art of the interview, supply a pen or pencil and a steno notebook. Have them round up a few facts about their topic and then to rough out some questions that rise from those facts. They’ll be on their way quickly.

 Follett School Solutions, distributors of books to schools and libraries, chose GHOSTS UNVEILED! for Follett’s “First Chapter Fridays” videos. Join me here.

             A heads up: it’s 12 minutes long.

            I told you I like talking to people! 


August 31, 2020

Why Do We Do the Things We Do?

Welcome to Julie Rubini, whose dedication to children's literacy is well recognized across Ohio! Julie's new book is all about the teenage brain.....

My latest book, Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive and Sing explores the WHY behind behavior and choices, written for teens. How cool is that?

I wish I had a book like this when I was a teenager. It would have helped me understand all the different factors involved in choices, including my home environment, genetic history, friends, peer pressure, and, the area I found most fascinating, the teenage brain.

Scientists are doing some amazing work in studying the teenage brain, including the exciting functional MRI testing. The test involves recording what happens, or doesn’t happen in a teenager’s brain, based on various stimuli. For example, while a subject’s brain is being studied using functional MRI testing, scientists may show the subject scary photographs, to see how the amygdala, the part of the brain that perceives and regulates fear, responds. Or, scientists will record how teens’ prefrontal cortexes respond to simulated situations when the teenage subjects believe they are being watched. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that involves reasoning and making judgments and decisions.

These studies help us understand the role the development of the brain has in teen behavior. But that is only one part of the equation.

Why does one teen, perhaps feeling anxious about a test, stay up all night and study, while another stays up all night playing video games? Why does one teen stand up to a bully picking on a friend, while another walks away? Why has one teen explored new talents during Covid-19 shelter at home restrictions, while another rages at the inability to do anything?

Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive and Sing explores the topic of psychology for teens, and reviews all of the various elements involved in reactions, behavior, and choices to help them understand why they do the things they do.


As peer pressure is significant in the lives of teens, the following experiment studies conformity, the influence of groups. The Asch Conformity Tests proved that, on average, a third of a group would answer a question incorrectly, based on the influence of others, even when they knew otherwise.

Try this test to see if results compare with the Asch Conformity Tests.

Recruit a few friends to stand in a shopping mall. They should just stand and look at the ceiling.

Make a simple grid in a notebook and record how many people stop and stare with the group within 15 minutes. How many pass by without participating in the behavior? Record these results and compare your study to the Asch Conformity Tests. Did a third of the people walking past in the mall look up to the ceiling as well?

Julie K. Rubini loves to writing stories about incredible women and intriguing subjects for young readers. Julie’s newest work is Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive and Sing, helping teenagers understand the science behind their behavior. Julie’s other works include, Eye to Eye: Sports Journalist Christine Brennan, Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist, and Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller, which received a Kirkus starred review and listed on Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books, outstanding merit.

Julie and her husband Brad established Claire’s Day, a children’s book festival in honor of their daughter. A highlight of the festival is the C.A.R.E. Awards, given to children selected as the most improved readers in their schools.

Visit or to learn more!

August 5, 2020

Revisiting Racism in Women's Suffrage. Plus: Pandemic projects


In recent months, historians and the media have focused on racism in the women’s suffrage movement. I wrote a book for young readers about suffrage back in 2012: Rightfully Ours: How Women Won the Vote. I asked myself, “Did I give due diligence in writing about Black women who were suffragists?”

            When authors write books one after the other, we lose track of older projects as newer ones crowd our brains. I truly needed to look back at Rightfully Ours and see exactly what I’d written about racism and Black women’s participation in the suffrage movement. I missed a few of them, namely Hallie Quinn Brown and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

             I wrote about Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, as well as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.  I had researched the National Association of Colored Women, the NACW, which drew from Black women’s local church groups and clubs—the very same as middle class white women did after the Civil War. Black women and white women mostly did not join hands in working for the vote, but their efforts certainly paralleled each other.

              There is a strange irony in the racism that tainted the push for women’s suffrage in America. American women first found their public voices in church as abolitionists. There were Lucy Stone, and sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke, and Lucretia Mott – all had verbal and sometimes physical abuse heaped on them as they spoke out against slavery in public meetings.

            The rest is history.

            On August 26 we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. 

            In other words, it’s been one century since American women WON the vote.


I’m sharing two kid-friendly activities I wrote for Rightfully OursOne keeps Harriet Tubman’s bravery in mind as takes you outside at night. The other draws on a so-called “women’s activity”—baking.  

Both are perfect for these pandemic days of stay-at-home togetherness!



July 1, 2020

Mission to Pluto Update and Paper Spacecraft Model

 Mission to Pluto

Get your mission update! My book, MISSION TO PLUTO: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt is now out in paperback! The reprint includes an update on the mission's perfectly fabulous first-ever flyby of a Kuiper belt object (KBO).

Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth.
The plucky piano-size spacecraft made history again in January of 2019 when it navigated a photo-snapping flyby of the KBO Arrokoth more than 4 billion miles from the Sun. The name means "sky" in the Native American Powhatan-Algonguian language. It's amazing to fathom, considering that when the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto in 2015, Arrokoth hadn't been discovered yet! When images of Arrokoth reached Earth, scientists were stunned to learn that it wasn't a single object, but a two joined rounded lobes. It looks a bit like rust-colored snowman! Nothing like it has ever been seen anywhere in the solar system. The theory is that Arrokoth's two ball-shaped bits once orbited each other as binary worlds, not unlike Pluto and Charon do today. Something happened long ago that caused them to merge and stick together. Billions of years ago when the solar system was forming, lots of bis and pieces crashed and clumped together. It's how the planets were made. Arrokoth is like a snapshot of that process frozen in time. 

Unbelievably, there's still more to come! New Horizons is currently a healthy spacecraft and is furthering its journey into the Kuiper Belt. Want to learn more? 
  • Get caught up on the story so far, by reading my book Mission to Pluto. There's a great free downloadable educator's guide for the book, too.
  • There are tons of great resources for educators on the New Horizons website, including activities for K-12.
  • Check New Horizons' official website for further updates from the outer solar system.
Go New Horizons, go!

To celebrate, print out and assemble this fun NASA paper model of the New Horizons spacecraft. Enjoy!