GUEST POSTS: NSTA Linking Literacy, NSTA National Convention, St. Louis, MO April 12, 2019, 1-4 pm.
The National Science Teacher’s Association has invited authors of Outstanding Science Trade Books and Best Stem Books to discuss literacy and children’s books at a special Literacy Event. 23 of these authors have contributed guest posts to run from January 15-April 9.

See the full author list at GUEST POSTS BY SCIENCE AUTHORS and the date on which they will post.

Guest post by Patricia Newman

If elephants could teach, what topics would they choose? Perhaps they’d introduce you to a new species of African elephant called the forest elephant, and compare them to their savanna and Asian cousins. Perhaps they’d talk about the concept of a keystone species—how elephants support all other wildlife in their habitats. Or perhaps they’d discuss specific behaviors, such as how mothers care for their young. These are some of the usual topics we teach when confronted with wildlife. But elephants can be quite chatty. They trumpet a birth, roar at death, and rumble about migration routes. Pandemonium ensues when two elephants mate (no privacy in the elephant world). They also communicate in multiple frequencies—both within and below our range of hearing.

If elephants could teach, I think they’d teach sound.

Most elementary or intermediate sound units begin with the concept of sound as vibration. What if we turn that approach upside down and begin with sounds as a means of communication before drilling down to the physics of how sound is made? In other words, start with the phenomenon: I wonder what those elephants are saying?

Eavesdropping on Elephants cover

            In Eavesdropping on Elephants: How Listening Helps Conservation, I tell the story of a group of scientists with The Elephant Listening Project who study forest elephants. They use sound to explain how elephants use the forest, interpret what they’re saying to one another, and help save them from extinction. As a reader, you dive into the rain forest of central Africa with the scientists to figure out how they accomplish these goals, but at the same time you are learning about sound:

  1. How scientists record sound and what they do with it once it’s recorded.
  2. How to read a spectrogram and understand terms such as fundamental frequency and harmonics. How to identify audible sound versus infrasound (generally humans cannot hear sound below 20 Hertz).
  3. How observations PLUS sound help scientists decode what elephants are saying to each other. The audio and video QR code links in the book transport you to the forest to observe—and listen to—elephants the way the scientists did.

Once you’ve read the book, try some of these simple sound experiments with children (all of which are explained in detail in my Eavesdropping on Elephants teacher guide developed by educators at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology):

  1. A language of your own (activity #3 in the teacher guide) –Team up with a partner and communicate using only sounds—no words. Can your partner tell when you’re scared? Sad? Issuing a warning? Surprised? Now watch the video of two elephants saying hello on p. 23 of the book (you can either use the QR code or type in the short link). How do the elephants communicate?
  2. Make a sound map (activity #5 in the teacher guide) — Go outside with a clipboard and a piece of paper. Sit quietly. Make a map of what you hear. Use different symbols to represent cars, squirrels, birds, etc. Can you determine which sounds are close and which are far away? Natural vs. human-generated?
  3. Decoding spectrograms (activity #9 in the teacher guide) – Study the spectrogram on page 15 of the book. What does the graph measure? Can you tell which sounds have a lot of energy behind them or are higher? Are there parts of the spectrogram that indicate sound you can’t hear? Now watch the videos listed in the teacher guide. These are cool, because you not only see and hear the elephants, but you see a spectrogram in motion as the sound occurs.
  4. Create your own spectrogram (activity #10 in the teacher guide) – Get your tech on with this activity. Download an app or spectrogram software and start experimenting. What range of frequencies can you produce? What visual patterns can you create? Can you change the sound by varying the playback speed?

Each one of these activities may be expanded to discuss aspects of sound—vibration, wavelength, loudness, pitch, and the mechanics of how we produce sound.

If elephants could teach, they’d definitely teach sound.

I hope to see you at the Linking Literacy event on April 12-13 during the NSTA National Conference in St. Louis. Panel discussions, small group conversations with authors, and book signings promise to tickle your inner STEM!

Can’t make it? Find me on Twitter @PatriciaNewman, Facebook, or Pinterest


Patricia Newman’s award-winning books show kids how their actions can ripple around the world. She is the author of the Robert F. Sibert Honor Book Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem; as well as NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book Eavesdropping on Elephants: How Listening Helps Conservation; Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book; and Green Earth Book Award winner Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Newman hopes to empower kids to think about the adults they’d like to become. Visit her at www.patriciamnewman.com.

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