Monday, August 26, 2013

27 Fun Science Activities for Black Families

Family Activity #1 - Sunday Morning Jam Session (Making Strawberry Jam)

Science and African People. Black parents often say to me, "I know that science is important, but I was never very good at it. I don't know enough science to help my child." My response to this plea is usually two-fold. First, as parents we are fortunate that being good at science is not a prerequisite for helping our children to do well in science. In fact, our ignorance might be our greatest advantage. Second, most people (especially people of African descent) are not aware of how much science knowledge they actually have.

At its core, science is the study of the natural world. African Americans in particular (and African people in general) have a rich history of studying and mastering the natural world. In this sense, the ancient African Dogon who charted the course of Po Tolo (known to europeans as Sirius B) centuries before europeans even knew it existed, were very much like our grandmothers and great grandmothers whose mastery of vegetables, tubers and herbs kept our families healthy and whole.

My Mistake. I remember one year my own grandmother noticed that a pear tree in a church parking lot had a good yield of pears. She asked the minister of the church if she could pick and keep some of the fruit. He agreed. I suppose if my grandmother had not gotten the fruit, it would have gone to the worms. We spent the better part of a Saturday picking and packing pears. Not long after that, one wall of my grandmother's pantry was lined with pear preserves. We ate on it for over a year. It would take another thirty years for me to appreciate the opportunity that I missed to learn the simple, yet empowering skill of making preserves. What's worse, I had to learn from a book, what I could have learned at the side of my grandmother. Parents, don't allow your children to make my mistake. Making jam is a simple, fun and immediately beneficial activity. It is also a great way to help children excel in science.

The Simple. With practice, a batch of strawberry jam can be made in less than 1 hour. I often do this activity with groups of students and teachers. Whether my group is as small as 5 or as large as 50 I have always been able to complete it in less than 1 hour. It is also very inexpensive. Aside from the cost of a large canner (which runs about $25) the total costs are about $18. You would need 3 pints of strawberries ($6), 7cups of sugar ($3), 1 pack of pectin ($2), and a case of 8oz mason jars ($7).

The Fun. Children don't typically care as much about what they do as they care that they can do it with you. Black children love to spend time with their parents. Making jam may not sound as exciting as going to an amusement park or playing laser tag, but it is the act of spending time together around a meaningful activity that is fun and memorable for our children.

The Beneficial. The obvious benefit you have after doing this activity is the strawberry jam itself. The $18 you spend on materials is less than you would spend on jam had you purchased it from the grocery store. What's more, the mason jars can be reused, s it is not a recurring expense. Among the less obvious benefits you have are (a) the new skill that you have helped your child to acquire, (b) the time spent and memories you have made with your child, and (c) the opportunity you have given your child for improved science learning.

Excelling in Science. One of the challenges children have with science in schools is that it is mostly presented in the abstract. The average child has no clear sense of how most science concepts and ideas relate to anything they would recognize in the real world. Consequently, students spend a lot of time struggling to find a concrete connection to these abstract ideas. They are wondering, "What in the world is this teacher talking about?" For example, a teacher introducing Bernoulli's Principle (which is abstract) often will not give it sufficient context (which is concrete) for children to understand it. Instead they jump right into properties of fluids. So students wonder, "What is a Bernoulli? Is it a person, place, thing, idea, process? Where is it found? What color is it? How big is it?" These are very practical and concrete questions that would help them to make sense of the larger abstract principles.

Students who do well in science tend to get the concrete connections outside of science class, often from their parents and other family members. One of the things that disadvantages Black children is that they do not get the same concrete connections outside of science class, neither do they get it in science class. Experiences like our Sunday Morning Jam Session provide our children with concrete experiences that they can draw from when learning the abstract ideas that are presented in schools.

Now the act a making jam by itself may not be enough to help students bridge the abstract and the concrete. So, during the Sunday Morning Jam Session parents pose a series of questions for children to think about as they make the jam. Now let me give you a word of caution. These are discussion questions, not quiz questions. Don't drill the children with a test on Sunday morning. Remember, it's supposed to be fun. Also, keep in mind that it is ok not to have the answers to these questions. If you don't know an answer and children don't know the answer, it is still an authentic discussion. The goal is to get children thinking about the science behind the jam making process.

Where do strawberries come from? Is pectin a chemical? Why do we boil the jars? What do we do if there's a bug on a strawberry? What does Smucker’s do when there's a bug on a strawberry? What is the difference between preserving and a preservative? These questions form the foundational ideas for a wide range of science topics, including: chemistry, ecology, microbiology, and food systems. It also allows children to see how these science topics relate to many non-science topics such as history, politics, sociology and art. You can download the full description of the Sunday Morning Jam Session from

And remember… Have Fun!

Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. He is also a member of the (ES)2 Research Program, which works to advance STEM curricula that position people of African descent to improve their current social condition. To learn more about the (ES)2 Research Program visit:

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Sick Care Plan and Black America

When reading the newspaper last week, I was reminded of yet another way that standard science curricula fail to meet the needs of Afrikan people. Although Black children take courses in health and biology, these courses do very little to help Afrikan people live healthier lives. Science curricula for Afrikan children should offer substantial instruction in health care and medical treatment.

In the News. Just last week the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story about UPMC (the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). Apparently the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Luke Ravenstahl, is leading the City of Pittsburgh in a lawsuit against the hospital.

Now before I go any further I should clarify one thing. To refer to UPMC as a "hospital" is a bit misleading. UPMC is a $10 billion enterprise. If a comparison would help, the City of Pittsburgh brought in just under 1/2 of $1 billion in 2011 ($489,317,000). UPMC is also the largest property owner in the county.

What frosts Mr. Ravenstahl is that after taking all this money from the residents of Pittsburgh, UPMC does not give the city an adequate cut. In fact as a tax-exempt nonprofit, UPMC gets a $20 million tax break from the city. Ravenstahl wants UPMC to let the city wet its beak. The city wants 6 years of back payroll taxes and removal of UPMC's tax-exempt status.

The Implications. What does this mean for you and me? Not much. It is a reminder that those who run the "healthcare" system care very little about health. Instead they are stewards of a multi-trillion dollar industry that maintains its revenues by maintaining us in sickness. The unfortunate reality is that as science educators we are largely complicit.

Standard science curricula do very little to teach Afrikan children strategies and techniques for ensuring good health. These curricula do very little to teach Afrikan children about the threats posed by the sick-care system. Given our current condition, Afrikan people should possess the skills necessary to ensure their own good health without reliance on the sick-care system run by whites.

What can we do? Let's start small! Help children to get comfortable making assessments of their own bodies. Teach them to take and record vital signs. The four primary vital signs are: body temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and respiration. These can be taken with minimal equipment and in a relatively short period of time. Additional useful measures to be taken are height and weight.

Teaching children to take these measures can be a fun exercise, but it should be much more. If we are serious about taking control of our health, we would maintain running logs of our vital signs. We would look for correlations between these measures and other life events (e.g. stress level, diet, amount of exercise, etc.). We could also explore with children what we can learn from these measures. What do they tell us about the functioning of our bodies? What is the biological basis for each?

This small step brings Afrikan people a little bit closer to self-determination and true health care. Why? ...because nobody is going to care about our health like we do!

And remember… Have Fun!

Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. He is also a member of the (ES)2 Research Program, which works to advance STEM curricula that position people of African descent to improve their current social condition. To learn more about the (ES)2 Research Program visit:

Monday, March 11, 2013

Where are They Now: The Passenger Pigeon

 The Inspiration. In one of the courses I teach, students are required to select a topic from a list that I provide; and then determine what they would like to know about that topic. I assess them on how well they reached their learning goals. This has become a fun course for the students and for me. For the students it is not often that they have the opportunity to design a course around their own learning goals. For me each semester the course changes based on the students interests… and I have the opportunity to learn quite a bit. 

A few semesters ago one of my students’ learning objectives had her looking at 3 extinct species. She studied each species, its habitat, and the reason for its extinction. As she shared what she had learned about these species I was amazed (all over again) at the destructive capacity of europeans. Studies of species extinction is a good tool for learning about both science and racism white supremacy. Let’s look at one example: the passenger pigeon.

The Good Times. The passenger pigeon (ectopistes migratorius) was noted for its large numbers. It was not unusual for a one flock to block the sun for hours as it flew by. Passenger pigeons were so numerous that flocks of the species had to be measured in square miles. The passenger pigeon is native to North America and upon the arrival of europeans it was regarded as one of the most abundant species of bird on the planet. One of its primary contributions to the ecosystem was that it was an efficient fertilizer. Pound for pound it dropped the most pigeon poop around.J Another primary contribution is that along with fertilizer it spread the seeds of vegetation that it ate. This helped to propagate a wide range of plant species. Perhaps a secondary contribution is that it served as wolf chow, hawk chow, weasel chow, and fox chow.

The Horror. The passenger pigeon was destroyed by the european. The first thing this weapon of mass destruction did to the poor passenger pigeon was to destroy its habitat. By clear cutting forests (ostensibly to build more wal-marts and gas stations) the passenger pigeon had fewer safe places to live and nest. The second thing this weapon of mass destruction did was to hunt the passenger pigeon into extinction. Someone had the bright idea of using the bird for slave chow. These brave hunters would soak grain and seeds in alcohol and leave it out for the pigeons to feed. The intoxicated pigeons would then be easier to kill[1]. There are a number of sources documenting the rate at which the passenger pigeon was killed. In one city in Michigan, upwards of 50,000 birds were killed per day over a 5 month period[2]. Blanchan’s book Birds That Hunt and Are Hunted is a very good documentary source. By european records the last passenger pigeon died in 1914.

There are many other extinct species that we could study: the dodo, rocky mountain locusts, blue walleye, the great auk, the Carolina parakeet, the Tasmanian Tiger (thylacine), even the Tasmanian are just a few. As we explore these many different cases, and causes of extinction, we should be vigilant in our search for patterns and recurring themes. What do you think we will find? Until next time…


And remember… Have Fun!

Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. He is also a member of the (ES)2 Research Program, which works to advance STEM curricula that position people of African descent to improve their current social condition. To learn more about the (ES)2 Research Program visit:

[1] Writing Activity: Write a short essay describing another historical or contemporary instance of europeans using alcohol to kill or otherwise exploit another species.
[2] Math Activity: If 50,000 pigeons were killed each day, how many were killed each hour? Each minute? Each second? Remember that this is the number of birds killed every second, every minute of every day, for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for nearly half a year… in only 1 city. That is a lot of killing!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Springtime Family Fun

Rich Opportunities. It may not seem like it, but winter is nearly over and spring is just around the corner. Although there is a great deal to learn from the natural world all year round, many features become pronounced as seasons change. In this way the changing seasons provide rich opportunities for Afrikans of all ages to learn more about the natural world. This week I am going to suggest an educational and entertaining activity that families can do together. Gentlemen, you might also want to try this one on that fine young lady that you are trying to woo. It will help you to stand out from the crowd!

The ultimate goal here is for us to become better at identifying various types of trees. “Who needs to identify different types of trees?” you may ask. In euro-land no one does because euro-man does everything for you. However, in the natural world, Afrikan people are wise stewards of God’s creation. In this role we not only identify but also understand the many millions of living species with whom we share the planet. Because trees provide us so much (e.g. tools, shelter, food, fire, protection, medicines, and weapons) our knowledge of trees helps us to better master the natural world. So how do we learn to identify trees?

In 5 Easy Steps. There are published field guides that can be used to help us identify and categorize a host of living things. The one that I use for tree identification is produced by the National Audubon Society. Step one is to obtain a field guide. Whether you use one by the National Audubon Society or not, doesn't make much difference at this point. If you purchase a field guide new it will cost about $20. You can also borrow one from a library or to get one used.

Step two is to identify one type of tree that will be the focal point of your attention. It is always good to start with an easily identifiable and common tree. Maple, oak, ash, poplar, willow, sycamore, and birch are among the more common hardwood trees in the US. My son and I lived in Ohio for a few years and we spent some time looking for Buckeye trees. The Ohio Buckeye is the state tree of Ohio. Cedar, fir, hemlock, pine and spruce are among the more popular softwoods. Keep in mind that these are broad categories (specifically genera) of trees. So although we speak of “a maple tree” there are actually hundreds of species of maple trees (sugar maple, silver maple, red maple, and Japanese maple are just a few examples).

Step three is to consult the field guide to learn some of the basic traits of your chosen tree. You will note the bark, the leaf structure, the types of fruit it produces, the type and color of its flowers, the time of year it produces seeds and flower, and the general size and shape of the tree. This is a lot to remember. So, don’t worry if you do not remember everything. In fact, sometimes you can do well with only one or two traits.

Step four is to go out looking for your tree. This is the fun part. Parents can take young children to a park or playground looking for your chosen tree. A bike ride through a tree-lined neighborhood gives us a chance to find our chosen tree. The commute to and from school or work could provide an opportunity to look for our chosen tree. Men, I promised to help you stand out from the crowd. Take that special woman on a nature hike and impress her with your ability to identify a specific tree. I tell you! If you can tell her one or two common uses for the tree! …and treat her to an ice cream Sunday afterwards! …you got you something there.

Step five is to do it again. The more time we spend looking for one type of tree in a variety of settings, over a long period of time, the more natural our knowledge of that tree will become. You do not need to identify all the trees in the book. If you can consistently and effectively recognize 7-10 different types of trees, you have surpassed the average person. Share your ability and insight with others.

And remember… Have Fun!

Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. He is also a member of the (ES)2 Research Program, which works to advance STEM curricula that position people of African descent to improve their current social condition. To learn more about the (ES)2 Research Program visit:

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Weapon of Mass Distraction

Question. How do you enhance your chances of preventing oppressed people from overcoming their oppression?

Answer. There are many tools that can serve this purpose. One of them is the tool of distraction. (a) Distract their attention away from the oppression. (b) Allow them very little idle time, they might decide to organize and address their condition. This can be prevented by filling their idle time with distraction. (c) Clear thinking might lead to an understanding of their condition. Inhibit clear thinking by distracting them with confusion. These are but a few ways that distraction is used to prevent the oppressed from overthrowing their oppressor.

Question. Why do I make this point?

Answer. Because I am an educator, and I want my readers to understand that “education” in the hands of the oppressor is a tool of oppression.

A Weapon of Mass Distraction. For Black children public education is a weapon of mass distraction. It distracts attention away from our oppression. Where in schools (run by those outside of our community[1]) do Black children learn that as Afrikan people we are oppressed? Where do they learn who oppresses us? Where do they learn strategies for collectively overcoming our oppressors?

For Black children public education is a weapon of mass distraction. It allows students (and parents) very little idle time. The life of an African American child in grades K-12 is filled with the drudgery of mastering meaningless minutiae. Those that don’t master it adequately are often shuffled off to prison/jail where the state will confine them and provide their basic needs. Others are resigned to a life of hustling to satisfy basic needs. At the other extreme, those who do learn to master meaningless minutia are often shuffled off to employment, where they are resigned to a life of hustling to satisfy basic needs.

For Black children, public education is a weapon of mass distraction. It inhibits clear thinking with profound confusion. “America is the land of the free” but “Your people’s history begins here in slavery.” “Columbus discovered American” but “He met 500 Nations of Indians when he got here.” “Black people are lazy” but “We traveled across an ocean to get them to pick our cotton for us.” “We love freedom and democracy” but “We frequently travel overseas to bomb the bejesus out of people who don’t practice it our way.” “You need to come to school to learn” but “We will suspend you if the teacher doesn’t like your facial expression or the tone of your voice.”

Precious few are those Black students who escape the onslaught of school with a mindset and skill set that positions them to help move the Black community towards freedom and independence. And those who do escape to be a service to our community do it in spite of rather than because of these institutions.

Liberating Education = A Weapon of Our Own. We can counter the effect of the schooling weapon, by providing liberating education to Black children in the space where we have them (e.g. after school, on the weekend, during the summer, around the house, and in our churches). The education we provide should help them to understand that they are born into a time where our race is under the foot of racism white supremacy. We should help them to understand that collectively we have a responsibility to eradicate racism white supremacy. We should help them to develop skills and dispositions that help them to fulfill that responsibility. In a recent article published in African American Learners, which is a journal sponsored by the Institute for the Study of the African American Child (ISAAC), we provide an example of liberating education for Black children. The goal was to give educators an idea of what it looks like in practice. If you have a chance, check it out.

For additional educational resources visit Like us on Fakebook. That’s all I have to say about that… for now. We can change the world in just one generation by properly educating our children. We are going to win!

And remember… Have Fun!

Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. He is also a member of the (ES)2 Research Program, which works to advance STEM curricula that position people of African descent to improve their current social condition. To learn more about the (ES)2 Research Program visit:

[1] By “our community” I am referring to the community of Afrikan people who have committed themselves to eradicating the system of racism white supremacy and replacing it with justice. There are many Blacks who knowingly or unknowingly function as minions of the system of racism white supremacy and in doing so reify our oppression. They are not of “our community.”

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lessons from Lance Allwrong

*A Special Research Bytes Blog Report*

I listen to Mike and Mike in the morning. For those who do not know, it is a sports talk show. I prefer it to being scared to death by the morning “news.” Anyway… this morning was excruciatingly painful. For four hours I listened to the hosts and listeners drone on about the ethics related to Lance Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). I learn a lot when I listen to white folks discuss ethics. It was telling how many people actually thought it was OK that Armstrong (a) defrauded his colleagues, fans and financial sponsors by using PEDs, and (b) attacked innocent people who bore witness against him with physical threats, harassment, slander and legal action. The argument of many listeners was that, “He has done so much for cancer victims, he should not be judged too harshly for what is a minor infraction by comparison.”

Lesson #1. I’ve heard this argument before. I sometimes have my class read Harriett Washington’s book Medical Apartheid. One of the most common responses that white students give to the book is, “It’s terrible what they did[1] to the Blacks. But if they hadn’t done it we wouldn’t have all the medical advances we have today.” In the mind of white folks, the end justifies the means. This is lesson #1. Armed with this mental aberration, they will genocide an entire race of people. “It’s really bad to do it. But if we don’t get rid of the Indians where will we live?” They will enslave another race of people. “It’s really bad to do it. But if we don’t get the Africans who is going to pick this cotton?” They will feed you toxic food, criminalize your sons, use media to degrade your image, deceive you to get elected, experiment on you without your knowledge or consent, fabricate lies to start wars, molest your children, and more. And it will be done with the idea that, “It’s really bad to do it. But…”

Lesson #2. Back to Lance Allwrong. Listening to this four-hour talkfest, not once did anyone offer any self-reflection. By this I do not mean reflection on the individual self, but reflection on the whole of Western culture. There was no “cultural critique.” During one commercial I saw a movie trailer for a new Sylvester Stallone film. How old is he now, 200? …Anyway, he’s still doing action films and he looks good. I wonder if he is taking Performance Enhancing Drugs (or at least Appearance Enhancing Drugs). How can a 200 year old man maintain the body of a fit 40 year old? Right after that another commercial came on asking me if I get sleepy around 2:00pm. The announcer then encouraged me to take a 5-Hour Energy. That way, when my body tells me I need to rest, I can ignore it, take a PED, and work right through dinner to enrich someone else. I didn’t see the Viagra commercial this morning, but it did come to mind. Maybe Congress should hold hearings around that PED and put its collective self in jail. In fact, when you consider the caffeine in soft drinks, coffee and energy drinks, alcohol, diet pills, male enhancement “medication,” Ritalin, Adderall (and other psychotropic drugs given to children), it seems that Lance Allwrong is alright in the Western world. Who isn’t on one or more PEDs. Dare we include nicotine, the “comfort” foods, that many use to self-medicate their depression, marijuana, and other illegal drugs? But alas, their hypocrisy knows no bounds. This is lesson #2. In many ways the Western world is like Oceania and its citizens walk around like Winston Smith drinking Victory gin all day to make the existence bearable.

Moving Forward. My dear parents, teachers and guardians of Black youth, do not feel that these lessons are too heavy for our children. We want our children to be critical readers of the word. But we also want them to be critical readers of the world. Present them with the following challenge, “Where do we see examples in the Western world of people operating on the idea that the end justifies the means? What is the consequence of that idea for the various people involved? Where do we find examples of profound hypocrisy among Western people? How are these ideas embedded in the culture of Western people? Based on what you know, how might non-Western cultural practices be different? Where do we see these ideas at work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics?” These are good questions for stimulating critical analysis of media. They also make good drive time conversation. If we don’t teach our own children, no one will.

And remember… Have Fun!

Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. He is also a member of the (ES)2 Research Program, which works to advance STEM curricula that position people of African descent to improve their current social condition. To learn more about the (ES)2 Research Program visit:

[1] Please note the past tense.