Sunday, February 19, 2012

OBJECT #3: Replica skulls

    I’m not quite sure why I have a skull collection on the mantle in my basement workshop.  I’ve never been a collector of any sort (although I do remember collecting those “Wacky Cards” when I was a kid-- the ones that came with bubble gum and featured silly ads for funny (parody) products such as “Vomit Cleanser” and “Swiss Mess” hot chocolate packets).  (Okay, I did keep all my baby teeth in a little plastic case, but wasn’t throwing them out at the end of that silly Tooth Fairy charade a bit of a waste?)  And though I admire naturalists who have vast collections from nature, I’ve never really thought of myself as one.   Sure, I had a fetal pig in a jar as part of my bedroom decor when I was about 12, but I had normal things, too, like Star Trek posters on the wall and stuffed animals on my bed.

    I think my adventures with skulls began when I started teaching art.  I was looking for interesting shapes that my students could draw using only a monochrome pallet (no color).  I wanted objects that were odd enough that the students wouldn’t be overly concerned about getting it to look “just right.”   I think I saw these replica skulls in a surplus catalog (probably American Science and Surplus) and thought the price was low enough that I didn’t have much to lose if they turned out to be a disappointment.  When they arrived I was quite delighted with them and they’ve been a standard still life item in my art classes every since.  They are made of tough resin, and are therefore practically indestructible, but are so lifelike that my students often don’t realize they aren’t real.  I’ve got a coyote, a cougar, an ape, and a small monkey.  I would have purchased more, but those were the only skulls listed.  That’s surplus for you.

    My favorite assignment is to have the students draw the skulls using black and white conte pencils on gray paper.  I’ve found that this is assignment almost always produces nice drawings, even with beginning students.  I’ve also had them try white pencil on black paper, and this works pretty well, too.

    I’ve always had in the back of my mind that I would use these skulls somehow as part of a hands-on exhibit in my summer science museum project (a free hands-on science museum at various outdoor venues in my town).   I have a few other skulls I could use, too, as well as a picture book I came across, “The Skull Alphabet Book” by Jerry Pallota.  This book is the most kid-friendly skull book I’ve ever seen.  It was a “must-purchase” for me.  The whimsical sense of humor is so right down my alley, and I love the simple and striking (artistic) compositions on each page.   It’s a brilliant combination of science, humor and artwork.  (I don’t understand why the author felt compelled to hide the faces of US presidents in the pictures, but, oh well.)   The first page sets the tone: Warning-- this book contains the alphabet. If you are afraid of the alphabet, do not read any further,”  What a clever way to get the focus of the skulls being scary!  After reading, “A is for... we are not going to tell you!” I was sold.  It’s an engaging book that makes you think while you are reading.  Some day I will think of a way to combine this book with my skull collection and make a fun hands-on exhibit.   Until then, I guess both my collection and the book are... “junk in my basement.”  

Friday, February 10, 2012

OBJECT #2: Twisty toys

    I picked up these twisty toys at a yard sale a few years ago.  Since they weren’t brand new, they didn’t have a tag on them giving their official name.  I few years later I saw the smooth one in a store labeled as “Twisty Tangle.”  The smaller ones with square links make little clicky noises as you manipulate them.  I don’t know how the inventors imagined the purchasers using them.  I suppose just a high-tech way to twiddle your thumbs?  But I’ve found the perfect career for them-- as “protein folding” demonstrators!  Whenever I teach a science unit that touches upon biochemistry, I go out of my way to talk about protein folding-- a topic that everyone should know about but few people do. 

    I remember way back when my oldest children were little and I had not started homeschooling yet (and therefore I was still a complete dummy!) that I met a graduate student here at Penn State who tried to explain to me what he was researching.  I remember him using the term “protein folding.”  I don’t remember much else about the conversation, undoubtedly because I didn’t have any way for my brain to file the information.  I didn’t know enough about the structure of proteins to see how or why they could fold.  Now I know that the amino acid “beads” that make up the protein chain have physical and electrical properties that make them “like” or “dislike” water and certain other amino acids.   These “likes” and “dislikes” make the protein warp and twist until all the aminos are happy with their position.  The result is that each protein has a unique (weird) shape.  The shape is what will determine that protein’s job. 

    Much of biochemistry operates on the “lock and key” principle, where certain proteins fit perfectly into other protein formations, like a key fits into a lock.  When the protein key slides into the protein lock, the chemical job gets done.  Rarely, a “mimic” protein will be close enough in shape to another protein to be able (or almost able) to mimic its job.  For example, the antibody protein that has the necessary shape for attacking strep bacteria also happens to be the right fit to attack heart cells.  The little antibodies run around attacking anything that matches their shape.  They don’t know about bacteria and heart cells- -only shapes.  That’s why when you come down with strep the doctors won’t let you fight it off naturally.  The necessary antibodies will attack not only the bacteria but your heart tissue as well, causing what we call “rheumatic fever.”

    It’s very hard to explain how protein twist and fold creating weird 3D shapes.  These toys are a huge help. Of course, they can’t be posed to show any real protein formations, but they give a pretty good idea of the concept involved.

    Many diseases are caused by incorrect protein folding.  For this reason, protein folding is on the forefront of medical research.  Computer programmers have teamed up with medical researchers to create databases of correct protein shapes.  It turns out, however, that figuring out the exact shape of a protein is very difficult and very time consuming.  Ironically, computers can’t do it alone.  It often takes human intuition to solve the puzzle.   Then some programmers came up with a brilliant idea-- why not tap into one of the modern world’s greatest resources-- bored, computer-savvy teenagers!  If a computer game could be designed where “winning the game” meant getting a protein folded correctly, perhaps thousands, or even millions of young people would donate some of their time to help the protein database.  They did create the game, and you can play it at:  Another website lest you donate your computer’s “down time” to protein folding:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

OBJECT #1: Chinese Terracotta statues

    Don’t startle as you round the bend from the woodshop to the laundry room!  Be prepared to catch a glimpse of two figures lurking behind the door.  When I first made these life-size “stand-ups” of the famous Chinese terracotta statues from Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb, and my subconscious wasn’t yet used to having them in the house, I would startle just for a split second every time I caught a glimpse of them out of the corner of my eye.  Not a real startle-- just one of those fleeting momentary things that can almost pretend didn’t happen.  But I can’t tell you how many times I caught myself tensing for a split second.  They are now hidden far enough behind the door that they don’t register as human shapes the way they did when I had them standing in the wood shop or in my studio area.   In fact, I’d forget about them altogether if I didn’t have to close the laundry room door once in a while.

    The figures are cut from cheap plywood which I then painted, both front and back, with white paint primer.  Then I used chalk pastels on top of the primer.  I sprayed the finished drawings with fixative.  I always hate to apply the fixative; it ruins the very fine blending and shading.  However, leaving chalk drawings unfixed is rarely an option.

    I made these as props for our homeschool group’s China unit a few years ago.  I also made a one-size-fits-all Qin Shi Huangdi costume for the students to wear as they stood for their picture, next to these two statutes.  I set all these against a solid color wall so that I could then use the Photoshop magic eraser tool to quickly and easily (so I thought) erase the background and replace it with a photograph of the landscape around the burial site (near Xi’an).

    I enjoyed our China unit much more than I had expected.  (Hope the kids enjoyed it as much as I did.) By the end of the unit, China had gone way up on my list of interesting places I might want to visit some day.

    You can see some of the other resources I created for our China unit by going to the free downloads “History/Social Studies” section of my website.