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To kids, everyday life is an experiment. The trick, says Claire Green, president of the Parent’s Choice Foundation, is finding toys that take advantage of their natural curiosity. The best ones will encourage the whole family to spend time together and spark discussions on biology, dinosaurs, and other kid-friendly fields. Here are the Parents’ Choice top 10 picks for science toys, books, and magazines for kids for every price point:

Discover Kids DNA Explorer Lab (Discovery Channel Store), $79.95, ages 9 and up. This kit comes with plant DNA, test tubes, and other equipment that let kids explore magnetism, density, and polarity in addition to basic DNA analysis concepts.

Perfume Science (Thames & Kosmos), $59.95, ages 10 and up. Eight scented oils along with glass storage bottles and labels let kids conduct their own experiments. A 48-page instruction manual explains the sense of smell, history of perfumes, and where fragrances come from. Users can even invent their own formulas.

EyeClops BioniCam (Jakks Pacific Inc.), $79.99, ages 8 and up. This “BioniCam” is much more than a microscope—Parents’ Choice calls it an “eyeball on a stick.” It lets kids zoom in on their own sweat, an ant, a penny, and other images. Photos taken with the camera can also be uploaded to a computer for even closer inspection.

Green Science—Spinning Top Generator (4M Industrial Development Limited), $11.99, ages 8 and up. This science kit shows kids how electricity is generated through a coil of wire, LED light, and a magnetic spinning top. Parents’ Choice calls it “an excellent representation of how electricity is generated at large power plants that supply electricity to our homes.” It even contains an environmental lesson in how electricity need not come from burning fossil fuels.

How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon? (Scholastic Inc/Blue Sky Press), $15.95, ages 2 and up. This funny book is designed to cheer up kids who are under the weather by depicting a dinosaur that hides from the doctor and spits pills into the sink.

Dinosaur Holiday (Museum Music), $15.95, ages 4 and up. This CD was created by the American Museum of Natural History, which turned holiday songs into tunes that teach kids about dinosaurs. Songs include “Hey Duck Bills” (set to the tune of “Jingle Bells”) and “Dino, Dino, Dino” (set to “I Had a Little Dreidel”).

Uncover a T-Rex (Advantage Publisher’s Group/Silver Dolphin Books), $18.95, ages 8 and up. This book lets kids see what’s inside dinosaurs, based on scientific theories about their inner workings and lifestyle. It includes facts about dinosaurs’ diets, running abilities, and relation to birds.

Inflatable Insects (Learning Resources), $34.95, ages 3 and up. These giant bugs—including a ladybug, dragonfly, and grasshopper—let kids build their new “pets” houses and cages. They also inspire kids to learn more about critters.

Big Bad Booming Bugs (Little Kids Inc.), $19.99, ages 6 and up. This “electronic observation station” lets kids capture insects and then examine them closely. A magnifying lens and earphones let them get up close and personal. It also comes with information about ants, beetles, and grasshoppers.

National Geographic Little Kids (National Geographic Society), $15 for one-year subscription, ages 3 to 6. This magazine features photos and easy-to-understand articles about animals, nature, and science.

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Virginia Naturally provides citizens with “one-stop” shopping to programs and information to learn about Virginia ’s environment. At this gateway site, you’ll find links to more than 800 organizations which provide environmental education programs and services in Virginia including volunteer and funding opportunities, teacher workshops and lesson plans, conferences, and community events to name a few. You can also find out what your ecological footprint is based on your lifestyle and what you can do to help reduce your impact on the environment. 

Adopted in 2000 as the official environmental education initiative of the Commonwealth, Virginia Naturally also recognizes schools and communities that are making extraordinary efforts to help citizens of all ages understand our world and lessen the negative impact on Virginia’s natural and historic resources.

VaNaturally is all about Partners and Networking
Public and private organizations and agencies are the heart of this initiative to link people to Virginia’s natural and historic resources. Anyone interested in education can become a partner and participate in a statewide network and join others to build knowledge and skills and an appreciation for life-long learning and personal responsibility to conservation. Partners can advertise their programs and events on this website and share their success stories. They can also receive free materials, a monthly newsletter, educational kits and participate in professional development. VaNaturally staff can help your organization find collaborators in your community.

Interested in signing up as a VaN partner? It’s quick, easy and FREE! Just email your contact information. 

Whether you need information or want to help others find it, Virginia Naturally is your gateway to information and resources about Virginia ’s environment.

* If you would like your events posted on the Virginia Naturally website, email the name, location, date, a short description and a contact for your event.

WASHINGTON (CNN) — As a candidate, Barack Obama promoted hybrid cars.

Shortly after taking the oath of office, Obama will climb into the Mother of All Hybrids — part car, part truck and, from the looks of it, part tank.

In keeping with recent tradition, the Secret Service will place a brand-new presidential limousine into service January 20 to drive the new president on the 2-mile jaunt down Pennsylvania Avenue during the inaugural parade.

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James Hansen, one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, and his wife, Anniek, have written an open letter to Barack and Michelle Obama on the urgency of the need to halt global warming.

The four-page letter [PDF], which Hansen has asked Mr. Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, to forward to the president-elect, warns of the “profound disconnect between actions that policy circles are considering and what the science demands for preservation of the planet.”

Mr. Hansen, who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is an adjunct professor in earth sciences at Columbia University, testified before the Senate in 1988 about the dangers of greenhouse gases and is largely responsible for first introducing the concept of global warming to the American public.

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As usual with the Bush Administration, corporate profits always supercedes public health and welfare….

First, Deborah Landvik-Fellner’s hair started falling out. Then her speech began to slur and her memory grew unreliable. Her heart started fluttering, and her hands shook. One day she walked out of the supermarket and woke up surrounded by a crowd of people. She’d collapsed in the parking lot for no apparent reason. Landvik-Fellner, then 45, went to one doctor, then another, and another. None could figure out what was wrong. Finally, in 2004, after five years of weird symptoms, her husband Mike saw a TV show about a man who was poisoning his business partner with mercury, a potent toxin that can damage the heart, nervous system, and kidneys. The business partner’s symptoms—shaky hands, staggering gait—reminded Mike of his wife’s. On a lark, he suggested that she have her blood tested. When the results came back, they were both stunned: 48 parts per billion of mercury, nearly 10 times what the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe.

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Here’s the recipe for saving sea turtles from drowning in the longline fishery. Switch out the classic J hooks for circular hooks. Add a little training and the tools to release turtles accidentally hooked.

A new report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) finds the new hooks dramatically reduce the bycatch of marine turtles without impacting fishing activity. They analyzed 4 years of data from 8 Eastern Pacific countries: Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. They found up to 89% reductions in the marine turtle bycatch per thousand hooks, and that 95% of all turtles caught in longline fishing were recovered alive. Circle hooks performed as well as J hooks in the catch rates of tuna, billfishes and sharks fishery.

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Tennessee sludge contains elevated levels of arsenic

(CNN) — The drinking water in the area of last month’s coal-sludge spill in eastern Tennessee is safe, but elevated levels of arsenic have been found in the sludge, authorities said.

A billion gallons of the sludge, made up of water and fly ash from a coal-burning Tennessee Valley Authority steam plant in Kingston, Tennessee, swamped 300 acres of mostly private property when a dike on a retention pond collapsed December 22.

All residents in the area were evacuated, and three homes were deemed uninhabitable, according to the TVA. About a dozen other homes were damaged.

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On June 11, the House Natural Resources Committee approved the Shark Conserva­tion Act of 2008. The bill attempts to curb the practice of shark finning by US-based fishing boats and limit trade with shark-finning fleets abroad.

Between 26 million and 73 million sharks are caught yearly, according to a 2006 study in Ecology Letters, a French science journal. The shark’s fins may be cut off and the carcass thrown overboard to make room for more valuable fins, which are used in dishes like shark fin soup, a delicacy throughout East Asia. Scientists say the targeting of sharks, along with sharks being incidental bycatch, have led to their dramatic decline. Some popula­tions are down by as much as 90 percent in the past 50 years. The nonprofit International Union for Conservation of Nature says that more than half of mid-ocean sharks are in danger of extinction.

With enough investment, geothermal power could satisfy 10 percent of the US energy diet, energy experts say.

Could hot rocks miles below the earth’s surface be the “killer app” of the energy industry?

Google thinks so. It’s investing more than $10 million to develop new technology that would make this subterranean resource a widespread, economically viable competitor to fossil fuels.

Geothermal heat could meet 10 percent of America’s energy needs by mid-century, according to the US Department of Energy. What’s more, it would not generate the climate-warming carbon emissions associated with fossil fuels.

Once tapped, a geothermal system would stay online for centuries. Unlike wind and solar, it would be a “base load” energy source, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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Mother Jones-When plants are burned or decay, carbon is released, combining with oxygen to become CO2. But when the same plants are heated in a kiln without oxygen, a process called pyrolysis, about half of that carbon turns into charcoal, a substance so inert it takes hundreds of years to revert to CO2.

Pyrolysis can be performed on an industrial level—a Wisconsin-based company called best Energies sells a device that processes about two tons of wood or other biomass (including turkey waste) an hour—or on a small scale anywhere on earth. The resulting “agrichar” or “biochar” makes a great soil amendment, which means fewer greenhouse-enhancing fertilizers, and more crops that can be turned into more biochar…It’s the most virtuous of circles.

Added bonus: Pyrolysis produces a gas that can be burned to produce more energy than the pyrolysis itself requires—energy that beats wind or solar in that it’s actually carbon negative. Cornell University’s Johannes Lehmann, a leading expert on the subject, believes the US could convert huge amounts of logging and agricultural leftovers into biochar, and even grow crops just for that purpose. Pyrolysis, he estimates, could eventually offset nearly a third of America’s CO2 emissions.

Mother Jones-For the past 30 years, the promise of solar power has been both a shining beacon and a source of disappointment. The roadblock has always been the technology needed to harness the sun: It’s frighteningly expensive, and complicated to maintain. Plus, after installing a system, you instantly become the dweeb down the block with the big brown panels on the roof.

Enter Steven Novack of Idaho National Laboratory. Novack and his colleagues have invented a radically different type of solar technology—the nano-antenna, which is about 1/25th the diameter of a human hair and can be crammed by the millions onto a square the width of a mailing envelope. Nano-antennae work sort of like radio antennae to tune in solar radiation, and they absorb about 80 percent of the sun’s available energy, and can collect infrared radiation even when it’s cloudy. By comparison, standard panels make use of only about 20 percent of the sun’s energy. The Idaho lab aims to produce its antennae in sheets for a few dollars a yard. Novack estimates they’ll hit the market by 2015.

In early 2001, an epidemiologist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sought to publish a special bulletin warning dental technicians that they could be exposed to dangerous beryllium alloys while grinding fillings. Health studies showed that even a single day’s exposure at the agency’s permitted level could lead to incurable lung disease.

After the bulletin was drafted, political appointees at the agency gave a copy to a lobbying firm hired by the country’s principal beryllium manufacturer, according to internal OSHA documents. The epidemiologist, Peter Infante, incorporated what he considered reasonable changes requested by the company and won approval from key directorates, but he bristled when the private firm complained again.

“In my 24 years at the Agency, I have never experienced such indecision and delay,” Infante wrote in an e-mail to the agency’s director of standards in March 2002. Eventually, top OSHA officials decided, over what Infante described in an e-mail to his boss as opposition from “the entire OSHA staff working on beryllium issues,” to publish the bulletin with a footnote challenging a key recommendation the firm opposed.

Current and former career officials at OSHA say that such sagas were a recurrent feature during the Bush administration, as political appointees ordered the withdrawal of dozens of workplace health regulations, slow-rolled others, and altered the reach of its warnings and rules in response to industry pressure.

The result is a legacy of unregulation common to several health-protection agencies under Bush: From 2001 to the end of 2007, OSHA officials issued 86 percent fewer rules or regulations termed economically significant by the Office of Management and Budget than their counterparts did during a similar period in President Bill Clinton‘s tenure, according to White House lists.

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Representatives of several public health, environmental, and manufacturing groups met last week with the Bush administration’s Office of Management and Budget and asked that more testing be done on car engines before federal ethanol limits are changed, warning that the impact of such an action upon consumers and the environment is not yet fully known.

The question of whether cars can safely run on higher blends is a murky one. At the moment, federal law allows gasoline used in regular cars to contain no more than 10 percent ethanol. The ethanol industry says the proportion could go higher—to 15 percent or even 20 percent—without significantly affecting how cars drive or hold up or how their emissions control systems perform. Some industry representatives are asking the Environmental Protection Agency, which has final say in these matters, to quickly approve 12 or 13 percent blends.

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These gift ideas keep kids entertained while imparting lessons about the natural world.

To kids, everyday life is an experiment. The trick, says Claire Green, president of the Parent’s Choice Foundation, is finding toys that take advantage of their natural curiosity. The best ones will encourage the whole family to spend time together and spark discussions on biology, dinosaurs, and other kid-friendly fields. Here are the Parents’ Choice top 10 picks for science toys, books, and magazines for kids for every price point:

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File this under “I wish I had thought of that.”

Last year, two MIT students won a prestigious international design award for a novel idea: Turn footsteps into electrical energy. The proposal imagined that an Italian train station would install a special floor. As passengers raced to catch their trains, the energy in their stomps would feed through an electrical system and power the building’s lights. Cool idea, but it only existed on paper.

A year later, Tokyo is rolling out the real thing. The East Japan Railway Company will be testing “power-generating floors” in ticket gates and staircases. As people move through the gates, they’ll step on stone tiles that give a little under the weight. That slight movement is captured and turned into energy. You can learn more about the process, called piezoelectric conversion, in a Monitor article from last year.

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