As the summer tans start to fade, so does the green in the leaves. As the green fades, the leaves fall and so do the pine cones. But how do those tightly closed cones spread their seeds when the squirrels cannot even crack them open? Let’s do some science and figure it out! 

This issue’s STEAM topic:

Figuring out what makes a pine cone open and close.

The mission:

Use your scientific knowledge and skills to figure out what makes a pine cone open and close to release and save its seeds.

The challenge: 

Can you figure out what makes a pine cone open and close to release and save its seeds. Can you make it open and then close right away again? Can you get the seeds out of the cone without it opening? What makes it open faster or close faster?

Materials you could use (but are not limited to): 

• Pine Cones

• 3 Glass or Clear Bowls

• Hot Water

• Cold Water

• Air

• Towels


This challenge is very open-ended. There is room for as much creativity as you want! To start, collect pine cones from outside. (Unopened pine cones are best for this experiment, but you can used opened ones as well for more diversity in you learning.) Have one bowl filled with hot/warm water, one bowl filled with cold water, and one bowl with no water. Put the closed cones into the warm water and see if they will open. Put the open cones into the cold water and see if they will close. You can try to use other liquids as well. Once you are done with all of your experimenting, you can simply toss the cones back outside or you can use them for crafts or decorations! 

Questions to mull over: 

• What was it that made the cones open or close?

• How does the weather outside affect the cones in the wild?

• What time of year do the cones fall?

• How does that affect their seeds growing?

• What if they fell during a different season?

Fun fact: 

Some pine trees, such as the jack pine, actually need so much heat for their cones to open that they require fire to loosen the sap that holds their cones shut for their seeds to be able to fall. 

The Family STEAM Challenge is all about experimenting with the ordinary to make the extraordinary! It challenges your family to think and play together all in the name of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (that’s where the “STEAM” comes in). Each challenge can be completed as a family or a group of friends in as little or as much time needed; however, most challenges can be completed within one sitting. The Family STEAM Challenge is also designed to get all ages involved through hands on experimenting. So get ready to put your collective thinking caps on to design a seriously cool apparatus made almost entirely out of reusable or recyclable materials laying around the house. Thanks to the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire for their help!

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