Steamy summer days (and nights) are a good time for STEM activities

One of the best ways to get kids interested in science is to help them explore and marvel at the wonders of our world. Why is summer hot? What is the big “light show” in the night sky every August?

Throw a star party
two young kids with headlamps on in a tent in a backyard at night with stars in the sky and a mom bringing them a snack of popcorn

Last month’s blog shared three ideas from Very Well Family’s "100 Summer Fun Ideas for Kids and Parents." Another one, from the category of Nighttime Summer Family Fun, is “Stargaze. Invite Friends and Make a Party of It.”

Any clear-sky night is good for stargazing, but consider planning a shindig for the annual mid-August light show: the Perseid meteor shower. According to NASA, it “is considered the best meteor shower of the year.” They further describe that “With swift and bright meteors, Perseids frequently leave long ‘wakes’ of light and color behind them as they streak through Earth’s atmosphere.” Viewers can catch as many as 50 to 100 meteors per hour.

City lights can make these shooting stars harder to see, as can the brightness of the moon. However, this year the lunar phase will be favorable for good viewing. The EarthSky website says that “The moon will be a waning crescent and 10% illuminated during 2023’s peak of the Perseid meteor shower,” which will be the late night and pre-dawn hours of August 12-13. Sure, it’s early, or depending on perspective, late, but it only happens once a year!

Make it a slumber party? Set a middle-of-the-night wake-up alarm and then let everyone sleep in late? 

Keep watching for flash and twinkle

Perseids is special, but stargazing is a fun pursuit any night of the year. The Lie Back, Look Up website, with its tagline “family adventures with the night sky,” in a stargazing with kids section suggests that “The most important thing that you can do for your child is to help them to appreciate the beauty of the night sky, and to help them become children who look up and wonder.” To make that even easier, they offer printables that include Constellation Cards, Sky Maps, and a Stargazing Diary. With the diary “each page includes space for your child to draw what they see, as well as writing prompts to encourage discussion and imagination.”

School Zone’s Anywhere Teacher online learning program includes Space Flash Cards with fun facts about the planets in the solar system, comets, asteroids, meteorites, meteoroids, and more. 

the front of four space flash cards available on Anywhere Teacher online program: Earth, Comet, Asteroid, and Meteoroid and the backs showing bulleted points of interesting facts

Closer to the ground, fireflies, aka, lightning bugs, are another beloved summertime light show in the night sky. According to The National Wilidlife Federation, “Fireflies are found in temperate and tropical regions on every continent except Antarctica. They live throughout the United States in parks, meadows, gardens, and woodland edges.” The site also notes that they are not flies but beetles. Their charming flashes of light are one example of a phenomenon called bioluminescence. The organ that produces it is on the underside of the abdomen.

close-up photo of a firefly lighting up on the end of a persons finger

The Firefly Conservation & Research organization, in "Facts About Fireflies," says that lighting up is how fireflies talk to each other. They also note that these lights “are the most efficient lights in the world—100% of the energy is emitted as light” vs. heat, making it a “cold light.” Generations of kids have chased fireflies, often collecting them in jars. But firefly habitat is on the decline, so it’s a good idea to catch them gently for an up-close look and then set them free. Summer brings out lots of other bugs too, and kids will love the Insect Flash Cards, also found on the Anywhere Teacher online learning program. They are crawling with fun and interesting facts about insects and show the basic body parts labeled.

Why IS summer so hot, anyway?
sunny blue sky with a close-up image of a thermometer showing over 100 degrees Fahrenheit

We sometimes hear the phrase “dog days of summer.” That too, points skyward. According to the Farmers Almanac, the dog days of summer are July 3 to August 11, and are “usually the hottest and most unbearable days of the season.”

The Almanac says, “The phrase is a reference to Sirius, the Dog Star. During the ‘Dog Days’ period, the Sun occupies the same region of the sky as Sirius, the brightest star visible from any part of the Earth.”  This source adds that “In the summer, Sirius rises and sets with the Sun,” and on July 23 specifically, “it is in conjunction with the sun.” Because it’s so bright, “the ancient Romans believed it actually gave off heat and added to the Sun’s warmth, accounting for the long stretch of sultry weather. They referred to this time as diēs caniculārēs, or ‘dog days.’” The phrase came to mean “the 20 days before and 20 days after this alignment of Sirius with the Sun…” 

a big bull dog with his tongue sticking out in a small bucket of water trying to stay cool

Today we know that mid-summer heat is not due to Sirius but the position of the Earth. The Farmers  Almanac explains that “During summer in the Northern Hemisphere, the tilt of the Earth causes the Sun’s rays to hit at a more direct angle, and for a longer period of time throughout the day. This means longer, hotter days.”

Light up kids’ learning and spark an interest in science that can last a lifetime.

close-up of silhouetted hands of a child in front stars in space background