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What the Plantation Owners Left Behind

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Homestead House, called Woodlawn by its first residents in the early 1700s. (SERC)


On the western shore of Chesapeake Bay, less than a mile from the Rhode River, there is an old red house on an abandoned farm. Once, in the 18th century, it belonged to a thriving plantation. The hilled rows of tobacco have vanished, along with the slaves and field hands who planted them. But the scars on the landscape remain. The surrounding earth carries traces of how each of its inhabitants have used it, or abused it.

The house’s first inhabitants in the early 1700s called it Woodlawn. Today it is known simply as the Homestead House. The building and its surrounding farmland now sit within the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Instead of slaves and field hands, teams of volunteers are overturning the soil in search of clues about its past.

Archaeologist Jim Gibb began the excavation at SERC earlier in August. His volunteers come for a single afternoon, or several weeks. He isn’t terribly picky about long-term commitments. Gibb welcomes anyone who can handle a shovel and is at least ten years old (and even that rule is flexible). Under his guidance, they are piecing together the story of one household’s legacy on the land.

The team made one of their biggest discoveries just a few weeks into the project, when they uncovered a brick foundation sprinkled with household artifacts. One possibility is that it was a storage shed. Another, that it was someone’s home.

“If someone was living in that in the early 19th century, and we know where the owners were living, then we do the math,” Gibb said. “They have to be labor. And at that point, probably slave labor.”

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The Hidden Eyes of Blind Cats

Monday, April 9th, 2012

by Samantha Reed

Photo courtesy of Samantha Reed


Cats don’t need their eyes to see in the dark. It turns out they have something even better. This spring, 12-year-old SERC student Samantha Reed decided to find out if the same thing could help humans.
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4 Ways Birds (and Salamanders) Make Humans Look Primitive

Friday, February 24th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Laughter of a Snowy Owl

Nemodus Photos

Sometimes Mother Nature completely outdoes anything we’ve created for ourselves. Accomplishments like the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions can seem almost laughable when there are lizards that can walk on water. When that happens, smart engineers try to take a lesson from it. It’s called biomimicry: technology inspired by nature. Examples include gecko tape, shape-shifting airplane wings and Velcro©. Last week a group of teenage students in SERC’s home-school program finished their own research on animal physiology and brought a few more examples to our attention. Here are four ways birds and amphibians outclass humanity – and some wacky yet brilliant ways we can mimic them.
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The Making of a Green Science Lab

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Architect\’s image of new Mathias Lab, complete with rain cistern on porch and wetlands to the left. (Credit: EwingCole)

Sustainable houses and office buildings have seen their popularity surge in recent years. But creating a more sustainable laboratory, especially one with chemistry research, where fume hoods can consume up to three times as much energy as an average home, is a bit more of a challenge.

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Close encounters with science: SERC’s annual open house

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Photo of two volunteers wearing homemade crab-hats

Volunteers Richard Hohn and Carla Downes mug for the camera and show off their crab crowns. Photo: Karen McDonald

Face-painted kids and smiling parents fanned out across the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center this past Saturday for the annual open house. They learned about horseshoe crabs, underwater research robots, toe-biting bugs and the rich history of the land. The official count is not yet in, but ask SERC’s outreach coordinator Karen McDonald if she was happy with the turnout and the answer is: yes. Ask her if she’s still recovering from organizing the day’s activities and the answer is also yes.

Thank you to our volunteers, partner organizations, board members and staff for making the day a success. A special thanks to The Chaney Foundation for sponsoring the event and to Peter G. Cane for photographing the day.

Mark your calendars for next year’s open house: Saturday, May 14, 2011.

Homeschoolers turn to SERC for science education

Friday, April 9th, 2010

“Ms. Karen’s” homeschoolers don’t give her apples to show their thanks. They leave her jars of black sand and shards of volcanic rock. It’s fitting for a teacher who packs her lessons with as much hands-on science as possible.

Student color in drawing of bird anatomy.

Class begins with a bird-anatomy coloring project. Photo: Kirsten Bauer


There are more than 24,000 students who are homeschooled in Maryland. This spring SERC is offering nine programs to these students. They include new classes on shark dissection and a laboratory-based class focused on Chesapeake Bay fish.
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