Whatcom County library exhibits make science fun for preschoolers; see Perseid meteor shower this weekend

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 6, 2013 

A traveling exhibit coming to local libraries this week from the Foundation for Early Learning aims to spark an interest in math and science among preschoolers.

Called the STEM Uni(verse) project - an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math - the exhibit offers children 5 and younger a chance to explore a variety of educational activities, said Catherine Sarette, children's services coordinator for the Whatcom County Library System.

Its idea is to empower children and stimulate intellectual pursuits, Sarette said.

"It's a great way to increase the pipeline of people coming up in the sciences," Sarette said. "The goal is to start them young with fun activities. Hopefully, we'll produce a lot of little math and science nerds who'll keep this country great."

The STEM Uni is a bookshelf-like collection of cubes that hold dozens of educational books and hands-on activities. Children will be able to explore the items at their own pace and collect a stamp on a booklet for completing one project in each of the four STEM categories. Participants who get for stamps will receive a prize, Sarette said.

"(Intellectual curiosity) helps get kids ready for school, to get those little brains working," she said.

Parents can bring their children to free events from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9, at the Lynden Public Library, 216 Fourth St.; and from 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Bookmobile stop in the Valley Village shopping center, on Lake Whatcom Boulevard just north of Lake Louise Road, across from Sudden Valley Gate 2.

At the Lynden Library, events include a Play and Learn Preschool Party with events such as a puppet show, educational toys, math games and "messy art."

Both events will be outdoors on a lawn, and will be under a canopy - providing shade from the sun or shelter in the event of rain.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, the STEM will be on the lawn behind Bellingham Public Library, 210 Central Ave. In case of rain, the event will be in the downstairs Lecture Room, across from the Children's Library.

METEOR SHOWER

This weekend offers an excellent opportunity for sky-watchers to see 60 or more "shooting stars" per hour, during the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. It's also the most reliable celestial event for northwesterners, because its mid-August arrival coincides with clear skies.

Perseid meteors are named for their apparent point of origin from the constellation Perseus in our northeast sky, just to the left of the Pleiades. In actuality, the Perseids are gravel-sized pieces of debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, which soared past Earth in 1992 on its 103-year journey through our solar system.

Its peak this year is the night of Sunday-Monday, Aug. 11-12.

Brad Snowder, manager of the Western Washington University Planetarium, said a waxing crescent moon that sets in early evening will provide a nicely dark sky.

"We're about halfway between the new moon and first quarter on those days," Snowder said. "The best show is after midnight anyways. That's when the shower gets the most intense. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in the Titanic, you're on the bow of Spaceship Earth, as it plows through space."

Snowder, who's an astronomy lecturer at WWU and an astronomy instructor at Whatcom Community College, said the meteor shower is perfect for casual sky observers because no telescope or special equipment is required.

"It's really a lawn-chair event," Snowder said. "You just lie on your back and look up."

About all that's needed, he said, is a clear horizon and a dark sky, away from bright city lights.

"Any place in North County is good," Snowder said. "Bellingham is not terribly (light) polluted, like Seattle or Vancouver."

Snowder said it's good to have a blanket, camp mattress or chair - plus warm clothing, snacks and hot drinks to ward off the evening chill. A flashlight or headlamp with a red lens helps preserve night vision. Once your eyes adapt for optimal viewing you can see all the stars in the constellation Ursa Minor, also known as the Little Dipper.

He said he likes to tell his students to play a little game while they're watching the sky: "Just lie in the grass and hold on. Pretend you're looking down."

Snowder said more avid observers like to record their total count and the color of the meteor, plus how long its tail lasts. He said observers are likely to see about one contrail per minute during the peak. Stray Perseid meteors can be seen for several days before and after the peak.

He said that "occasionally you'll see a fireball," hear sonic boom, or see the tail of a meteor appear to "skip" on the atmosphere - like a flat stone across water. Those are rare and precious events, he said.

"If you spend 1,000 hours (observing), you'll see about one fireball," Snowder said. "And there's always the possibility of an aurora," with the sun currently in an active cycle.

SEE THE BATS

A Wild Whatcom Walks event to see a bat colony is 7:30-9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 10, at Hovander Homestead Park in Ferndale. Cost is $10 per person, or $30 for a family of four. The event is appropriate for children ages 5 and older.

Participants will learn facts and myths about bats by watching the colony of little brown bats as they emerge from the attic of the historic Hovander House. Registration is required and will close Friday, Aug. 9. Email wildwhatcomwalks@gmail.com to register.

Robert Mittendorf is a Herald copy editor and page designer. Contact him at 360-756-2805 or at robert.mittendorf@bellinghamherald.com.

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