Science Education and Gardening

Author: Milo (Page 1 of 11)

Alka Seltzer Rockets and Solar Ovens

We’re making rockets at Gravenstein Elementary School this month. Here’s how to make your own:

Film canisters: Must have a rubber seal, which many sold by Amazon do not. Shutterbug in Santa Rosa said they have a ton of film canisters that work for rockets and they would be happy to give them to Gravenstein parents for free:

An online source:

Alka seltzer: drugstore generic brand also works fine. 

Directions: Fill the film canister halfway with water. Add one alka seltzer tablet, close the lid tightly, shake, put the canister on the ground upside down and stand back.

We talked about Newton’s Third Law and how the carbon dioxide produced in the canister builds up until it causes the canister to burst open. The gas pushes down on the ground and the ground pushes the rocket into the air- every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

We’re also making solar ovens, using this guide:

Electric Motor Design Project

In June 2021, I organized some Mind of a Scientist alums to work on designing and 3D printing electric motors. This is a collaboration between Sonoma State professor Daniel R. Soto, Lawrence Livermore Lab test engineer Jacob Aman, Medtronic mechanical engineer Geoff Orth and Roblox software engineer Alex Katz. Jacob designed a working model using FEMM (Finite Element Method Magnetics). We are working on figuring out how to guide students in tweaking the motor’s design. Much of the work has been done at Chimera makerspace in Sebastopol, but Geoff has also been printing motor parts at Medtronic for us (one is pictured below). We were just awarded a Medtronic grant to purchase more motor parts.

We designed the first motor to be as simple as possible, to demonstrate the principles of electromagnetism. Orchard View science students have built and tested five motors so far. Eventually, the goal is for students to build stuff with the motors they design, such as automated plant experiments and a device for a solar oven to track the sun.

I’ve teamed up with Maker Music Festival founder Joe Szuecs to create a summer camp at Chimera, which will include building motors.

Jacob explains how electric motors work in this video:

Science Camp

Science camp (AKA Eco Kids) at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts featured solar oven building ( We had a competition like this: The camp was a chance for me to try out some lessons I’m planning for 6th grade science at Orchard View in the fall.

We designed and built fog catchers similar to these:

We played ecology bingo, in which students observe and sketch parts of an ecosystem on bingo cards:

Audubon Canyon Ranch shared their mountain lion curriculum with us, and we learned about our wild neighbors. Check out this activity book

Additional resources:

Mind of a Scientist

Mind of a Scientist is a partnership with the Sonoma County Library and librarian Rosalie Abbott. The program features live presentations with scientists and engineers each week.

Here’s our page on the Sonoma Library site with all our videos, worksheets and answer keys:

We have featured Sonoma State, UC Davis, Sonoma Water, Dow Labs, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Bodega Bay Marine Lab, plus Medtronic and Keysight engineers.

Recently we’ve had climate scientists Rob Nelson and Katherine Wentz (From NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Remote Sensing Systems respectively). NOAA marine biologist Steven McKagan Zoomed in from Saipan. Laguna Foundation wildlife biologist Shelly Spriggs presented as well as data scientist Shawn Boye and NOAA meteorologist Zach Tolby.

I’m grateful for the support of the Sierra Avalanche Center and the Shasta Avalanche Center for our series on snow science.

Roblox engineer and Orchard View alumni Alex Katz gave a fascinating talk, followed by Jacob Aman from Lawrence Livermore.

Recently, I have been creating decision making scenarios with our speakers for students to work on. Here are a few examples:

Conservation Biology Scenario: Imagine you are an environmental scientist developing a conservation plan for a preserve on a North Coast estuary. You have been asked for your expert opinion on the best approach to trail access along the estuary and how to minimize impacts to natural resources. State which option you recommend and why, and identify one method of minimizing – or mitigating for – that option’s impacts on wetlands  or wildlife.

OptionImpacts. Cost Connectivity to Other Trails.
1. Build a short boardwalk
to a wildlife viewing platform.
2.Build a long boardwalk
that provides a full trail connection along the river to the north.
3. No boardwalk; instead,
work with other agencies to build a paved trail along the highway – a long-term project.
Moderate -HighHighHigh

Electric Motor Scenario: Imagine you are a car company executive in charge of launching a new line of electric trucks. You must choose a motor that will please customers as well as be practical and efficient. It’s important that a lot of people buy the truck, but you also face fierce competition from other exciting models. After discussing, choose which type of motor to use in this new truck.  

Type of Motor: Pros:    Cons:
1) High torque, lower
Good for
Heavier  $$
2) Low torque, high speed Faster, more
efficient $
Poor tow rating, more maintenance 
3) Medium torque, medium speed   All around
performance $   
Less exciting

New Garden Area at Orchard View School

Summer vegetables growing in the newly rebuilt raised beds.

We recently rennovated our vegetable garden at Orchard View. After new cobblestones were installed, agro-ecology students have been working on rebuilding the raised beds along with benches and trellising.

This is what the garden looked like before the renovation. Bermuda grass had swallowed our entire garden.

Bermuda grass remains a formidable foe, but the cobblestone patio now prevents it from spreading from the nearby field in the beds from below. Bermuda is still trying to creep in, so it still needs to be managed.

You can see the Bermuda creeping in on the left.

This year, we will be adding several new raised beds on either side of the picnic table pictured above. Right now we have cover crops of favas beans, crimson clover and mustard growing in the beds.

Serving up Squash at Local High Schools

I recently helped CAFF (Community Alliance with Family Farmers) stage a Farm Invasion at Analy High School in Sebastopol to raise awareness about the importance of healthy local food in schools. Katina Connaughton and her husband Kyle (owners of Single Thread restaurant) generously donated their time to help me prepare roasted squash for the event. After an initial roasting, and adding butter, brown sugar and toasted pecans, Kyle used a torch to brulee the tops and create a caramelized crust. My sister Sarah and her boyfriend Ty grew the Delicata (which they donated to the event) at their farm in Sebastopol.



Our table in the Analy Quad.

When we got to Analy, I joined Heather, Susan and Danielle from the Sebastopol CAFF office, and Gayle Dyer, director of food service at all three West County high schools and we handed out samples of the roasted Delicata during school lunch. The roasted Delicata turned out to be a hit with staff and students alike. The kitchen manager liked the dish so much that she decided to put it on Analy’s menu for next week and I made my first delivery of Delicata to her the next day.

On Tuesday, we staged similar Farm Invasions at Laguna and El Molino high schools. For these events we added sliced Fuyu persimmons from Rancho Pillow.

New Zazu Beds at the Barlow


Max and Katina thin beets in the new Zazu beds. Behind them is Webb’s Wonderful lettuce, and Kosta Browne winery is in the background.

The Barlow decided to convert part of its events lawn across from the Skatepark into a produce garden for Zazu Restaurant, shown above. Katina and Max have helped me direct seed the beds with lettuce, beets, carrots, arugula, and radishes. We used an Earthway Seeder, which worked quite well. We’ve been thinning each week, and bringing the thinnings to the Zazu kitchen for use as microgreens. Its fun and nostalgic working so close to the skate park. When I was a kid, my skate buddies and I worked tirelessly organizing and raising money for a skatepark so we’d have a place to skate legally. We formed the West County Skate Park Association with community leaders like Jeff Weaver, who is now the chief of police, and Star Hergenrather, director of the Analy Drama Department. When my generation of skaters went off to school, my uncle Bill Cole and a few dedicated skate moms picked up the torch and after ten years, the skatepark was finally built.  Before the skatepark was built, that area was an unofficial community garden, and I used to have a plot there during summers home from college. At that time, Taylor Maid was roasting coffee across the street in the old Barlow, where Spiritworks distillery is now. I have so many memories from the Barlow growing up; from climbing on the old stacks of apple boxes, to canoeing through it during a flood. It feels like I’ve already sprouted some roots in the ground we are working.

Zazu Moves to the Barlow


The outdoor seating area at the new restaurant. The foodish boy is planting edible flowers in the background.

The outdoor seating area at the new restaurant. Alex, the Foodish Boy, is working in the background. In the foreground are Padron peppers and heirloom tomatoes. Pictured above is the new dining room and bar.

Zazu is now open for lunch and dinner wednesday through monday in the Barlow, a food and wine center in Sebastopol. The roadhouse on Guerneville Rd. is now closed. The new location will be open for lunch and will have a full bar! We also have a lot more space for food processing and preserving, so we’ll be able to produce a lot more pickles, syrups, jams, etc. Already, the new kitchen has made several batches of pickled Armenian, lemon and puna keena cucumbers. The kitchen will serve food late- till 11pm on fridays and saturdays, and there will be small dishes served at the bar from 3-5pm as well.

Alex Nazaruk, a British food journalist, came and stayed with us as part of his mission to work 52 food related jobs around the world. Alex spent a day cooking at zazu and worked with me for a couple days on the farm.

Signs of Spring

Day old triplets roaming around in the cover crop at Rancho Pillow. A week later, two black lambs were born.

The plum trees and flowering quince are starting to bloom, coastal wildflowers are popping up, and lots of lambs have appeared. While the mushrooms have suffered, our recent spell of dry, warm weather is ushering in an early spring. I wrote a blog back in march of 2010 about some of the wildflowers you find this time of year in Sonoma County: Spring at Last.

Caring for five lambs born in the span of two weeks has been a joy. The lambs are so cute and incredibly fast. Julian and I had to run as fast as we could to catch them for the vet. Even at one week old, they can leap high into the air.

After so many long dark nights and slow to arrive dawns, these early signs of spring are most welcome, but I expect we still have plenty of cold and rainy weather to come.


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