From Minecraft to TED, Kona Democratizes Project Planning

Kona Project Planning Application
Kona Project Planning Application

It seems like everyone from ten to seventy is obsessed with Minecraft, the quirky, open-ended mining and building game featuring everything from zombies and creepers to sheep and diamonds. Because the game is so open-ended, there are endless building combinations. Interestingly, players that cooperate in the game can share resources, build things, and even fight evil mobs together.  So, it came as no surprise that my 10 year-old Minecraft-obsessed child jumped into similarly open-ended Kona to create his own Minecraft cooperation planning space for him and his friends.

Easily share documents, screenshots, photos and even videos in Kona
Easily share documents, screenshots, photos and even videos in Kona

Kona is a free and easy-to-use project planning tool from the professional business management software company, Deltek. But Kona’s not your usual corporate project management software, bloated with Gantt charts, top-down project assignments, timelines, and milestones. Instead, Kona focuses on conversations, tasks, and events. It is built around the philosophy that everyone in the system can be a project manager (even 10 year-olds), creating spaces (projects), assigning tasks, scheduling events through the nifty event calendar, and even pulling in files from Dropbox or Google Docs. Yes, you can even import your Outlook, Google, and iCal calendars. Oh, and if you’re a road warrior, the free Kona mobile app lets you access Kona on the go (like when you’re racing to your child’s soccer match and need to check if it’s your turn to bring the snacks).

What is different about Kona is the simple, intuitive interface and laid-back, Hawaii-inspired theme.  Within minutes of signing up for my free account, I built a “Music” space and started adding events to the calendar for all of our son’s music performances, recitals, rehearsals, summer camps, auditions, and events.  Eventually, the spaces we create to manage and track our son’s activities will help us document and build a portfolio that he’ll need when it’s time to apply for college.

Kona is so flexible it can be used to plan almost anything. Kona team members use it in their personal lives for absolutely everything you can imagine, from organizing scouting events, summer camps, sleepovers, birthday parties, hockey games, vacation planning, and even babysitting schedules for grandparents. Yes, grandparents. Think about it, what better way for a child to connect safely with family on the Internet than through Kona?

Kona is designed around conversations
Kona is designed around conversations. Photo Credit: Kona

But Kona can go beyond family life. Book clubs, community groups, and even professional organizations use Kona to connect members around events and ideas. In fact, Kona recently announced that the TED organization has added Kona as a partner. And as a TEDx organizer, I’ve created a Kona space for our growing team. Just because Kona is great at managing your family life doesn’t mean that it can’t rock your work life, too. Kona offers a business version so that forward-thinking organizations can democratize company project planning activities.

So, whether you’re planning how to split up your mining riches with co-op partners in Minecraft or leading your company through disruptive changes, Kona gives everyone an equal voice, democratizing projects and humanizing the entire experience. If the Kona team’s enthusiasm is any indication, this fresh, fun tool is just getting started. Thanks for putting people first, Kona.

ByteLight Solves Indoor GPS Mapping Problem With LED Lighting

How ByteLight Works
Photo source:

“We’ve taken something that’s been around since Edison and turned it into a way of transmitting information.” -Dan Ryan, CTO of ByteLight

Dan Ryan and Aaron Ganick, both Electrical Engineers, met at Boston University as undergrads. They became quick friends as they continued to bump into each other in class and around campus. Little did they know that a common childhood passion and a local science museum would play prominent roles in shaping their futures.

At the 2011 TEDGlobal conference, Harald Haas demonstrated sending data through LED lights to project video onto a screen without an external wi-fi source. However, Dan and Aaron, recent Boston University Grads, invented a unique extension of this breakthrough–using LED lights to transmit location information to mobile devices within buildings. Even Google, which relies on wi-fi for mapping the insides of buildings, has not been terribly successful in mapping interior locations.


Enter ByteLight, Aaron’s and Dan’s small start-up based entirely around proprietary software that can accurately map the inside of buildings using only LED lighting to transmit location information. So, with the trend toward LED lighting replacing fluorescents in many buildings throughout the world and the continued growth of mobile smart devices, LED lights that broadcast location data stands to revolutionize how we interact within shopping malls, museums, trade shows, office buildings, factories, and even airports and airplanes.

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Streetlights Can Do That? An Entrepreneur Creates Smarter Cities

Superdome in New Orleans, La with Intellistreet lighting
Superdome in New Orleans, La. with Intellistreet lighting. Photo courtesy of Illuminating Concepts. Used with permission

What do music, the iPhone and Hurricane Katrina have to do with streetlights? If you are Ron Harwood, everything. Ron is the inventor of Intellistreets, an LED street light system that goes way beyond simply lighting our streets.

Ron Harwood is the inventor of Intellistreets, a system of connected technologies installed within city street light posts to form an intelligent wireless network for services, safety, and entertainment (streetlights as part of the Internet of Things). Ron is also the owner of at least 15 patents in the sound and lighting industry. Although he is an electrical engineer, his passion for much of his life has been music and people. From marching on Washington during the Civil Rights movement and learning to play music from the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Pete Seeger to making a demo recording for Joni Mitchell and managing Sippy Wallace’s comeback in the late 60’s, Ron lived for music. He even introduced Sippy Wallace to Bonnie Raitt, who ended up putting two of Sippy’s songs on her first album, which was a huge success. But when Columbia Records called to offer Ron a record producer job in New York City, Ron chose a different path.

For Ron, lighting, music, technology, and people are inseparably part of his life. Like Steve Jobs, Ron did not know how the dots would connect moving forward, but he followed his heart. Early in Ron’s career, he spent most of his time in the entertainment business, managing entertainment lighting, and sound for Disney parks and bands. But after 9-11, things changed. Having lost friends in the tragedy, Ron started taking life more seriously. He started rethinking how people enjoy and interact with iconic U.S. cities. What if Intellistreets had been installed in New York City at the time of 9-11? Could the system have saved lives? And after hurricane Katrina, Ron’s respect for the people and culture of New Orleans, especially its musicians, compelled him to finally put his ideas into action. Ron pooled his talents and created a product to connect people to their cities in a way that is beautiful, sustainable, entertaining, intelligent, and interactive. Like the iPhone, this system can do much more than make a call or light a street. 

Continue reading Streetlights Can Do That? An Entrepreneur Creates Smarter Cities

Learn Robotics With GeekMom Kathy's Simple Projects Book

Wobble Bot
Wobblebot. Image: Gina Clifford

What are robots? How are they being used in the world today? How can kids make their own working robots? Where can you find parts? All this and more is covered in a great new book by GeekMom’s very own Kathy Ceceri. The book, Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future, not only shares this information and more, it actually contains robotic projects that kids as young as 9 can build using recycled household materials like paper, cardboard, paper towel rolls, and straws.

Full disclosure: Kathy Ceceri is my GeekMom editor. I volunteered to review a complimentary copy of her new Robotics book. I also had a pre-publication sneak peek at a few of the projects in the book.

The Projects

The book contains 20 projects and we tried most of them. Some are quick and simple demonstrations and others require a bit more time and materials. All of the projects demonstrate real robotic principles. Best of all, there’s plenty of room for improvisation and parts substitution. The Passive Dynamic Mini Walker was the most surprising project in this book — we really didn’t expect it to work because it was so simple to build. No electronics, sensors or sophisticated joints. But it rocked! Made using a thin wooden skewer, some beads, and cardboard, its gait was amazingly life-like. We laughed with delight as it strolled down a cardboard folder like a tiny shore bird at the beach, powered by gravity.

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People-Power Lights 2012 Olympic Walkway

Pedestrians walking on Pavegen tiles at the West Ham tube station walkway in London
Pedestrians walking on Pavegen tiles at the West Ham tube station walkway in London. Photo: Pavegen Used with permission.

When I first met Laurence Kemball-Cook he was showing me how he’d hacked a cheap AM-FM radio in his hotel room the night before. He rewired it to run off his own kinetic energy instead of the batteries it was designed for. He also shared photos of LED bike lights he’d hacked together that provided superior lighting at a fraction of the cost of commercial bike lights. It was obvious that Laurence had a thing for lights. Really, though, his sustainable clean energy power generation invention is what makes his story interesting.

At first glance, the Pavegen tile looks like a low-tech block of plastic with an LED light embedded in the center — kind of like an overstuffed version of one of those dance game tiles that teens love. But its simplicity is genius. The tile is really a sophisticated device that captures the kinetic energy from human footfall traffic and converts it into usable electric energy. When stepped on, the tile surface flexes five millimeters, converting kinetic energy to around five to seven watts  (five to seven joules) over the duration of the footstep, depending on the force exerted on the tile. That’s why Laurence needed to hack the radio — he showed the world that by jumping up and down on the tile, he could power the radio. Now consider what the tile could power if it collected energy from millions of footsteps. That’s exactly what Laurence had in mind.

Continue reading People-Power Lights 2012 Olympic Walkway

Inventor Mitch Altman, Electronics Jedi

Mitch Altman, Inventor of TV-B-Gone
Mitch Altman, Inventor of TV-B-Gone Image: Joi Ito, Creative Commons License

Long, flowing hair and an air of supreme confidence emanates from Mitch Altman as he enters the “Dark Side” stage at the 2012 Orlando Mini Maker Faire on Saturday, May 27, 2012. You can hear the Star Wars theme trumpeting in the background as R2D2 blinks and beeps — Mitch takes the stage.

Mitch has been self-employed since 2007, promoting his successful invention, TV-B-Gone. TV-B-Gone uses Jedi Force-like prowess to turn any TV off. Simply point the device at a TV and BAM! It goes dark and quiet. In 2004, Mitch reached Jedi status after the Wired article featured his TV-B-Gone invention.

Like Padawan, Mitch’s fans flock to learn his secrets for successfully launching an invention. Mitch’s description of venture capitalists leaves you with the feeling that he’s really describing Sith Lords, telling you what you want to hear and then turning you to the Dark Side. However, there are trustworthy manufacturers in the universe—Mitch found them in China.

Continue reading Inventor Mitch Altman, Electronics Jedi

Google’s Erez Lieberman Aiden – How the Human Genome Folds

How the Human Genome Folds
Photo: Gina Clifford

What do Ramen noodles, knots, and genome globules have in common? If you’re researcher Erez Lieberman Aiden, these are models for his groundbreaking research on 3-D mapping the human genome. At the end of the day, he shares advice and wisdom with aspiring young scientists. His connections to TED and Google lend a “cool” factor to mathematics, too.

Erez isn’t exactly your everyday researcher. Erez is a fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and Visiting Faculty at Google. His research has won numerous awards, including a $2.5 million National Institute of Health New Innovator Award, the GE and Science Prize for Young Life Scientists, the Lemelson-MIT prize for best student inventor at MIT, and the American Physical Society’s Award for the Best Doctoral Dissertation in Biological Physics. His research is recognized as one of the top 20 “Biotech Breakthroughs that will Change Medicine” by Popular Mechanics. Technology Review’s 2009 TR35 recognizes Erez as one of the top 35 innovators under 35. If that isn’t enough, his last three research articles all appeared on the cover of Nature and Science magazines.

Erez Lieberman Aiden, Center, with Univ. of S. Fl. Math professors Milé Krajčevski (left) and Nataša Jonoska
Erez Lieberman Aiden, Center, with Univ. of S. Florida. Math professors Milé Krajčevski (left) and Nataša Jonoska Photo: Gina Clifford

Many Google fans might be familiar with Erez’s research on how the English language changes over time. Google’s Ngram tool is based on his research. In fact, his talk on the subject is a TED Talk.  Lately, though, Erez’s research involves how to locate specific bits of the human genome within a cell. The genome is an organism’s instruction set for how to build a new organism from scratch.

To learn how the genome folds up so tightly within a cell, Erez processes genome material into bits and then places it into a solvent. In the solvent, the genome folds up into a round 3-D globule whose bits are miniature replicas of the whole. Thus, a better name for these globules is a fractal globule. Erez’s goal is to figure out which parts of the globule touch other parts in order to map the precise location of every bit of the globule.

To explain his thinking, Erez compares the behavior of the folded up genome within the cell to Ramen noodles folded up within a cellophane package. Using a polymer physics model and work done by  Joseph Peano and David Hilbert, Erez explains how Ramen noodles model his genome globule. Who knew?

Did you know that when cooked and unfolded, Ramen noodles stretch 170 feet? If they are not stirred excessively, the noodles unfold completely unknotted. Amazingly, these noodles model the genome globules behavior. Apparently, remaining unknotted is key to folding and unfolding the genome.

Erez’s advice to budding scientists and mathematicians:

Don’t be afraid to fail, but strive to do well in whatever you pursue. He also encourages young people to fail often until they find something that gives them great confidence and satisfaction.

Erez admits that, as a child, he wasn’t a standout student. In fact, he didn’t find his passion for mathematics and physics until he entered graduate school. He attributes his early success in publishing scientific papers as a graduate student as his biggest motivator. With the help of Ramen noodles, knots, and genome globules, Erez Lieberman Aiden is quietly changing the world and the perception of mathematics and science—he’s making them both cool!


TED-ED – TED Releases Cool Education Talks Aimed at Teens

TED Fellow Greg Gage at TED
TED-Ed Contributor and TED Fellow Greg Gage at TED Photo by Gina Clifford

TED Talks are great learning tools. Famous for high quality presenters talking about the world’s biggest ideas, TED Talks inspire everyone—even children. Now there is a whole series of TED videos created especially for young people. The new TED initiative is called TED-Ed and promises to include teacher tools in a new website, coming in April 2012.

To bring TED-Ed to the world, educators and animators teamed up around interesting topics. TED-Ed is bringing wonder back to learning by introducing ideas through short TED-style talks and animations. To get an idea about how TED-Ed videos are different from standard video lectures, check out TED Fellow and neuroscientist Greg Gage’s talk. Greg shows how brains receive and deliver electric impulses—and how legs can respond. Awesome. The new TED-Ed website and learning tools launch in April. For now, share all of the amazing TED-Ed videos with your kids!

TEDActive Makers Hack Art, Urbanization, and Kinetic Energy

Laurence Kemball-Cook, CEO of Pavegen
Laurence Kemball-Cook, CEO of Pavegen Photo by Gina Clifford

TED is an annual, global idea conference. TEDActive is the arm of the TED conference that engages thinkers and doers in projects centered on the TED Prize. What happens when an artist, an engineer, an inventor, and a technology guru at TEDActive put their heads together around the idea of urbanization? Talk turns to making as an impromptu team emerges.

Luis Cillimingras of Ideo was the Urbanization project facilitator at TEDActive. Kiel Johnson is a fine artist with an amazing talent for working with cardboard. Kiel created a miniature city from cardboard for TEDActive. Laurence Kemball-Cook is the CEO of Pavegen systems, a company dedicated to converting human footsteps (kinetic energy) into electricity. Laurence presented at TEDActive, demonstrating how people’s footsteps on a Pavegen tile can be converted to electricity that can be used to power a radio. In his hotel room the evening before his presentation, Laurence hacked the radio (to accept power from a Pavegen tile). Beau Ambur, president and founder of AD&HD, Inc. is a technology guru who, as a child, taught himself electronics, wiring, and device hacking.

Because making things is what these guys love to do, they rapidly brainstormed a way to use a Pavegen tile (people power) to light up Kiel’s cardboard city. Luis purchased all the wiring, LEDs, and resistors required for the project. Beau, the technology guru, worked with Laurence and set about calculating resistor and power requirements. Over the next day and a half, the team wired the city up to the Pavegen tile.

Beau's calculations
Beau’s calculations Photo by Gina Clifford

As the team worked furiously to complete the wiring before the conference ended, people started making cardboard additions to the city. Someone built a yacht, another person created a TED sign. Someone even built an elevated park with resistors for tree branches.

Resistor Trees by Jenna Sampson
Resistor Trees by Jenna Sampson Photo by Gina Clifford

Finally, shortly before the end of the last TED session, the wiring was complete. The miniature city’s red lights glowed brightly as people streamed into the room and lined-up for their chance to jump up and down on the Pavegen tile. Some danced, juggled, and even laughed as they powered the city’s red lights. Literally and figuratively, this miniature city was “people-powered.”  What if real cities embraced diverse maker cultures and tasked them with innovative design and energy projects? If this project is any indication, our cities would be more beautiful, efficient, and fun.

TEDActive Attendees Power Cardboard City with Footsteps

About the Team

Miniature City Project team
Photo by Gina Clifford

Laurence Kemball-Cook is the CEO of Pavegen systems, a company dedicated to converting kinetic energy into electricity. Laurence was inspired to create Pavegen as a graduate student working at a large energy company in the UK where he was tasked with designing solar powered streetlights. Admittedly, Laurence is not a fan of corporate structure and was bored by the uninspired work he was doing. Motivated by his Sustainability and Industrial Design Engineering graduate college courses, he came up with the idea to harness otherwise wasted human kinetic energy to power lights or store the energy in batteries for later use.

Kiel Johnson is a fine artist with an amazing talent for working with cardboard. His miniature cardboard city, augmented with miniature signs, boats, hammocks, and art created by TEDActive attendees throughout the week, celebrates The City 2.0, the 2012 TED Prize.

Beau Ambur, president and founder of AD&HD, Inc. is a technology guru who, as a child, taught himself electronics, wiring, and device hacking.  It was Beau’s idea to light up the miniature cardboard city, and he definitely had the skills to accomplish the task.

Luis Cilimingras works at IDEO and facilitated the Urbanization project at TEDActive. Throughout the week, Luis worked tirelessly to facilitate conversations about improving cities as the world’s population shifts to urban environments.

The Maker Culture is Reinventing Detroit

Photo by Gina Clifford

To be sure, Detroit faces uphill challenges as it fights poverty, unemployment, and a shrinking population after the massive downsizing of the auto industry. In the media, we all see Detroit’s vast vacant factories, poor schools, and despondent people. Sadly, these stories become Detroit’s story. However, they are just some of Detroit’s stories. They do not and cannot define Detroit.

The Detroit I experienced is full of unbelievable potential. Its people are not defeated–just the opposite. Detroiters are on fire. They are fierce, quirky, diverse, creative, authentic, gritty, passionate, and proud. They love their city. In fact, they are reinventing it right now. Detroit is the epitome of toughness, standing tall in the face of adversity and emerging stronger than ever.

Downtown Detroit is beautiful. There is something about the color of the city at sunset that is unlike anyplace else. Just before the sun sinks below the horizon, the city glows as if each soul in the city lends itself to the effort. The art at the People Mover stops remind you that Detroit is, or once was, Motor City. The giant steel Joe Louis fist statue on Jefferson Ave. could not be more symbolic of Detroit. Quirky Greek Town sits as a tiny Vegas amid brownstones. Glowing yet tough like hot iron, Detroit feels like the heart of the Maker movement.

Downtown Detroit at sunset photo by Gina Clifford

Lish Dorset is an artist and writer, a self-described hybrid of Debbie Harry, Liz Lemon, and Martha Stewart, her youthful vibrancy and iconic glasses betray Detroit’s perceived gloom. She makes beautiful things by hand. At a time when President Obama is seeking to engage Americans to be makers of things instead of consumers of things, Lish is quietly being that symbol. She is fun, optimistic, and passionate about Detroit. Lish is one of the makers helping to reinvent Detroit. In addition to her maker skills, she helps run Handmade Detroit and writes for Craft Magazine.

Christopher Gorski loves cars. He also loves to draw. Chris bought an old step van, named it Leo, painted it, and filled it with his original designed and hand-drawn t-shirts. He sells his shirts under his own brand, Detroit GT as he drives around the city in Leo. Chris loves Detroit. He loves cars. He is Detroit. An entrepreneurial spirit unencumbered by doubt, Chris is part of the unique fabric of Detroit that makes Detroit, Detroit.

Barry Randolph is the pastor of Church of the Messiah on Grand Blvd. If you met Barry on the street, you might not guess that he is a pastor. He is tough-minded, outspoken, immediately likeable, and cool. You might mistake Barry for an entertainer or a motivational speaker. Without a doubt, though, there is not anyone in Detroit with more compassion for people. The Church of the Messiah welcomes everyone, regardless of economic, racial, or social background. Barry is featured in the movie Lemonade Detroit, a movie about the amazing entrepreneurial and creative spirit of Detroit’s people in the face of stunning adversity. Barry develops community programs, runs several community gardens, and houses a cool hackerspace in his church’s basement. View Make’s interview with Barry.

Barry Randolph
Barry Randolph with Erik Proulx Photo by Gina Clifford

Detroit gets to you. You go there and you change. Erik Proulx knows this. He visited Detroit and ended up making a movie about the amazing Makers who are reinventing their city. He called it Lemonade Detroit because he witnessed Detroit’s Maker culture first-hand. The people are not downtrodden. Hope is not lost. Detroit is alive and people are reinventing themselves and their city. They’re makers at heart who are making lemonade out of their lemons. The movie itself, a 17-minute short film, is an entrepreneurial effort. Most of the movie was made by film pros that volunteered their time on the movie. Now, Erik is working to raise funds to pay people (so they can eat) to make Lemonade Detroit into a full-length film. By selling each frame of the 17-minute film for $1 each, he credits donors as ‘producers’ on IMDB. Erik, a Maker himself, appreciates the importance of this movement. Watch the film and you’ll get it, too.

Watch the Lemonade: Detroit 17-minute short from Erik Proulx on Vimeo.

Clint Eastwood’s Chrysler commercial about America’s half time speaks directly to Detroit. It is not the end–it is a new beginning, and Detroit’s maker culture is in the driver’s seat. Detroit is an iconic American city re-inventing itself after the crash of the auto industry. Its people are optimistic, passionate, creative, and proud. If you visit, be sure to hang out at Motor City Wine on Woodward Ave.and say hi to Lish if she’s there. Get a shirt from Chris Gorksi, and visit Barry Randolph at the Church of the Messiah. Before you leave, watch Lemonade Detroit, and then donate a few bucks to the movie-your name in the credits is a great way to say ‘I’m part of the Maker culture’.

GM Brings Sci-Fi Closer to Reality With WOO

WOO Smart Windows Platform by GM
Photo property of GM, used with permission

For kids, riding in the back seat of a car is boring. We have all heard “when are we going to be there?” or “Mom, tell her to stop singing”. Enter WOO, the Windows of Opportunity project. With WOO, General Motors Research and Development paired researchers with students from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Israel to create fun, innovative car windows.

GM’s Human Machine Interface (HMI) lab group manager, Tom Seder, used to design display systems for Boeing planes before joining GM. It is exciting to see the influence he is having on future automobile human machine interfaces, especially after partnering with such creative college students on WOO.

The Windows of Opportunity project involves advanced window technology that responds to vehicle speed and location through various embedded sensors. Bezalel students developed apps that used motion and optical sensor technology developed by EyeClick to turn standard window glass into a multi-touch and gesture sensitive surface. Imagine something like an iPad interface on a window surface!

The students created some fun apps that would definitely entertain children in the back seat. Here are some of the cool apps Belazel students created for the WOO project:

  • Otto, an animated character projected over passing scenery, responds to real-time car performance, weather, and landscape. With Otto, passengers can learn about their environment in fun, playful ways.
  • Foofu, an app that allows passengers to create, explore and discover through finger drawing on window steam.
  • Spindow, an app that provides users with a peek into other users’ windows around the globe in real time.
  • Pond, an app that allows passengers to stream and share music with other cars on the road, downloads favorite music tracks, and shares messages with other passengers on the road.

GM is certainly dreaming outside the automobile box with WOO, and has made significant steps toward bringing the ideas of science fiction closer to reality. Although not yet slated for production, interactive windows would likely use electronically charged “smart glass” technology capable of variable states of translucence and transparency, and reflect projected images (like in the movie Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol).  The possibilities are exciting!

Chevrolet’s New Concept Coupes Combine Style, Performance, and Tech

Chevrolet Code 130 R Concept

One of the most exciting unveilings at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan was Chevrolet’s introduction of two stunningly appealing but dramatically different concept cars. Because the new cars are still in the concept phase, they are not yet slated for production.  However, they look like they were designed with production in mind.

Although distinctive and expensive-looking, these affordable concepts target budget-minded young drivers looking for good gas mileage, wifi and smart phone integration, unique design, and zippy performance. In fact, Chevrolet plans to take these cars on tour to other major auto shows, key lifestyle events, and to college campuses. Social media will be used to connect with young consumers and collect feedback on proposed features.  By engaging the youth market, Chevrolet is feeding into the participatory culture of today’s youth. In fact, the interior for both of these concepts will allow for personalization. According to John McFarland, senior manager for Chevrolet Global Marketing,  Chevrolet is dedicated to serving the youth market.

 “At Chevrolet, we want to build authentic and meaningful relationships with these customers on their terms. We want to hear what they have to say, engage them in our design process, and give them what they want – not what we think they want.”

 Code 130 R Concept

Chevrolet Code 130 R Concept
Photo by Gina Clifford

This concept has muscle car genes. It’s rear wheel drive, brushed golden rims, and ‘mean eyes’ head lamps scream performance. Although distinctive, hints of the Camaro run through the upright, aggressive design. Featuring rear wheel drive and a 1.4L Ecotec turbocharged DOHC I-4 w/ eAssist engine, four seats, 20-inch wheels and forty miles per gallon gas mileage, this car has style and performance.

Tru 140 S Concept

Chevrolet Tru 140 Concept
Photo by Gina Clifford

The 140 S looks like a descendent of a Lamborghini. Exotic and classic, the 140 S has a global, flowing design with active styling. The pearly white, slightly matte finish on the 140 S is oddly beautiful. In fact, this paint will be available on new production GM cars. The Tru features four-passenger seating, a three-door hatchback, front-wheel drive, and a 1.4L Ecotec turbocharged DOHC I-4 engine w/ start-stop technology. With 21-inch Chevrolet performance chrome wheels and available six speed manual transmission, this car will be fun to drive.

So, although these cars are targeted at drivers 14 – 30 year-olds, they’re so visually appealing and fun to drive, older drivers might find these cars irresistible, too. In a small, unscientific poll, I found that people preferred one design over the other but not both. I like the flowing lines and dreamy paint on the exotic Tru 140 S. After all, it does have four seats and a hatch, zippy performance, Internet and wifi integration, and good gas mileage—all things a small geek family wants, too. Which one would you drive?

Cadillac CUE’s up for Geek Moms

Photo property of Cadillac. Used with permission.

On  Sunday, January 9t–the eve of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, Cadillac unveiled the new Cadillac ATS, a luxury car to compete head-to-head with BMW.

The car is beautiful, especially finished in sinfully decadent metallic red. But is it appealing to a working mom? With its big wheels and aggressive profile, I wasn’t sure. But then I sat in it and met ‘CUE’.

CUE is shorthand for Cadillac User Experience, and is a user interface platform built with the Linux open source operating system (extra geek points here).

CUE ‘s interface resembles that on an iPad. In fact, CUE’s interface Designers noted that they drew inspiration from popular touchscreen devices. CUE’s interface features a bright capacitative touch screen with haptic feedback (user feels slight vibration when the driver touches an icon on the screen) and a familiar-looking icon-filled screen. The iPad-like interface even uses similar swipe, pinch, and drag gestures. I liked the fact that the screen is black until a hand comes in proximity of the screen, and that you can select apps to display in your Dashboard cluster so that you don’t have to look over at the touchscreen while driving.

The CUE interface. Photo property of Cadillac. Used with permission.

I was lucky enough to meet two of the Interactive Designers who helped design CUE. According to Cadillac Interactive Designers Matt Highstrom and Cody Hansen, Cadillac started from scratch when developing CUE. One of the first things Cadillac designers did was drive around with a bunch of different people (and their families) to observe how customers drive, observe their habits, note their challenges, and even investigate how they used technology while in their cars (smart phones, the radio, and more). From this research, eight personas emerged representing clusters of people with similar profiles. The working mom persona was largely inspired by a woman named Linda the team met during the test drives. Apparently, Linda is a lot like many other working moms who cram work, home, and kid activities into the daily commute.

CUE's personas Photo property of Cadillac. Used with permission

So, thanks to Linda, Cadillac set out to integrate CUE technology into cars like the new ATS to make life easier for busy moms. Here are some of CUE’s cool features:

1. 12 inch natural gesture capacitive touch screen
2. CUE responds to simple voice commands like ‘play something by the Beatles’ or navigational queries.
3. CUE’s text to speech feature converts incoming text messages to voice and even sends out voice messages as text.
4. CUE’s integration with Android and Apple mobile devices means that contact lists, playlists, and even some apps, are available from the CUE touchscreen.

Although CUE has been in development for four years, it is just getting started. Matt and Cody couldn’t reveal what’s next for CUE, but they did note that was intentionally over-engineered so that it could handle updates as the technology progresses. They also noted that they are continuing to develop the technology with driver safety in mind in order to minimize driver distraction.

Thank you, Cadillac, for helping busy moms leverage technology to provide a safer, more fun, and geekier driving experience. That silky red paint helps, too.

Entire Cyberchase Animated Series Now Available Online

Cyberchase website

As a GeekMom, I’m extremely choosy about what and how much children’s television and online programming my child consumes. After all, time is my family’s most precious commodity. Therefore, when my child engages with children’s programming, it has to be great.

I am delighted that the entire Emmy Award-winning animated video series, Cyberchase, is now available online. Cyberchase is a fun, funny, geeky animated series full of math, computers, science, engineering, and technology for 8 to 11-year-olds. Through the lens of computer technology, each episode creatively introduces and explains a math-related problem that the characters must solve. We love that the problems are always presented within an engaging story instead of mindlessly presented as a series of math facts or steps. Even better, the activities section of the new Cyberchase website includes instructions on how to duplicate projects from the episodes. As science geeks, my son and I particularly love the dew point and wind speed projects!

The secret to this show’s appeal goes deeper than just great content, although that is number one in our house! The star-studded voice talent is infectious. Gilbert Gottfried stars as Digit, a cyborg bird that has trouble flying, and Christopher Lloyd stars as Hacker, the bad cyborg who is trying to take over cyberspace. I give extra points to Cyberchase because the 9 and 11-year-old girl star characters are smart readers with extensive vocabularies and strong personalities.  Finally, the imaginative stories combine lots of technology, computers, and even magic (a nod to Harry Potter) that appeals to kids who thrive in the digital landscape.

The Emmy Award-winning animated series, Cyberchase, is one of the most entertaining and engaging math-focused programs for 8 to 11-year-olds I’ve found. Now that all of the episodes are available online, those who don’t or can’t catch the series on television can access top-quality children’s programming with the click of a mouse.

Cyberchase is produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET New York Public Media. The Cyberchase TV series airs on PBS KIDS GO! across the U.S.

Ten Cool Companies That Rocked the IAAPA Conference

IAAPA conference attendees enjoying an interactive game at the Expo
IAAPA conference attendees enjoying an interactive game at the Expo

IAAPA Attractions Expo, owned and produced by International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, is the world’s largest conference and trade show for the $24 billion global attractions industry. The future rides, attractions, games, and products of the world’s theme parks and attractions are well represented at this weeklong conference.  Between November 14 and November 18, 2011, approximately 25,800 amusement park and attractions industry professionals from 118 nations gathered in Orlando, Fla. for the IAAPA Conference.

The Exhibition hall seemed as large as a small city and hosted over 1,000 vendors from around the world. Vendors sprawled over 447,474 trade show floor space and over 47,000 square feet of outdoor space. Everything you could possibly image (and some things you can’t) relating to theme parks was represented at this amazing conference. There were probably more bounce house vendors at the conference than there are plumbers in New York City!

There were so many cool, geeky products, games, rides, and novelties to review that it was extremely difficult to narrow the list to just ten. In the end, these ten products had a cool factor that left me with a glow long after the event.

  1. Daniels Wood Land Intricately chainsaw carved redwood stumps might be how Daniels Wood Land started, but the company has a jaw-dropping portfolio of projects for themed entertainment around the globe. Daniels Wood Land artists have backgrounds in movie effects and cut, shape, mold, and paint foams and coatings to make breathtakingly authentic props. My favorite is the life sized car prop carved from foam, painted with auto paint, and fitted with working lights and trim.

    Javier Soto and Andy Dauterman of Daniels Wood Land
    Daniels Wood Land employees, Javier Soto and Andy Dauterman, posing with the creature they helped create.
  2. SimEx!IWerks is the leading entertainment company specializing in 3-D and 4-D cinematic experiences. Although I visited numerous competitors at the IAAPA conference, the Great Escapes, Life in 4-D movie was highly immersive and my favorite overall. The quality of the 3D was so realistic, I felt like I was in the movie! Other awesome 4-D films I enjoyed in the SimEx!IWerks display area were Dora and Diego’s 4-D Adventure and Happy Feet: Mumble’s Wild Ride.

  3. Accesso On the geekier side, I couldn’t help but hunt down some industry RFID gurus. Accesso had the most impressive RFID implementation of any of the vendors I sought. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips use radio waves to transfer data to a reader to identify and track the object. Accesso has built a complete solution that can be embedded in a wrist band that streamlines park purchases, ticketing, and even controls the theme park experience itself. The coolest use, I think, is an RFID wristband that interacts with a museum exhibit to deliver age-appropriate content or content the viewer has not yet experienced. Awesome.

    Accesso's RFID wristband
    Accesso's RFID wristband
  4. Open Air Cinema Imagine a giant inflatable movie screen in your back yard with high definition audiovisuals. The Cinebox HD Home starts at 9 feet wide and the elite system is available in widths up to 40+ feet! This would be awesome for fundraisers, family reunions, or community events.

    Open Air Cinema
    Open Air Cinema inflatable theatre system
  5. Industrial Frigo ice makes portable ice rinks. According to Filippo Gervasini, Head of International Sales, Industrial Frigo created a 1 km ice trail in Italy in five days and can set-up rinks in any environment.

    Industrial Frigo ice
    Industrial Frigo ice mobile and permanent installations
  6. Apple Industries Wedding Booth is geeky. Rent the booth for your wedding and let the wedding party and guests take their own photos in the booth. The resulting photos are made up of all the photos taken during the day.  The coolest part is that you can custom theme a booth to fit your own event.

    Wedding Booth photo
    Picture of pictures from Apple Industries' Wedding Booth
  7. Fairy Dust Ltd. is an awesome company with a simple but fun approach to kids’ hygiene. Using clever presentations, names, and the DIY spirit, Fairy Dust products are packaged and dispended in food and science lab-themes. Boys and girls will love the eyeballs, fingers, skeletons, and other “lab specimens” in the make your own gels. The bright sugar scrub sherbet “flavors” orange, raspberry, and lime look good enough to eat. Fairy Dust Ltd. will even work with vendors to create custom themed products.

    Fairy Dust Ltd Mad Lab Bath Gel
    Fairy Dust Ltd. can create fun bath products around any theme, but the Mad Lab is cool!
  8. nWave and Media Mation work together to create and distribute interactive attraction technologies.  David Taylor, a senior programmer with Media Mation, created the programming to control the simulator experience for The Little Prince, a 3-D fantasy film. The story is magnificent, the graphics and colors are stunning, and the experience is very immersive.

    The Little Prince
    The Little Prince
  9. Legoland. The Legoland dark ride’s very cool animatronics skeleton band from the Legoland dark ride was on display at the conference and delightfully entertaining. It was a treat to see the display up-close after having had a glimpse of them on the ride itself at Legoland Florida.

    Legoland Skeleton Band
    Legoland Skeleton Band
  10. Peavey Marvel branded youth guitars. In spite of the fact that Peavey systems control large portions of major theme parks and attractions, it is also marketing Marvel branded guitars. On display, I saw a half-size Peavey acoustic guitar featuring the Marvel Super Heroes, a few three-quarter size Peavey electric guitars and even a full-size Peavey Rockmaster® electric guitar. There are even Peavey Marvel branded guitar picks and straps featuring the Marvel Super Heroes!


The IAAPA Conference is a unique opportunity to get a sneak peek into what is up-and-coming in the entertainment and theme park industry. The IAAPA conference is a must for industry pros but plenty of families braved the crowds with their little ones for a day of total immersion. If you find yourself in Orlando, Florida next November 12-16, get your IAAPA tickets and escape to the mad, wonderful, one-of-a-kind entertainment show like none other in the world.


Ghosts, Books, and Coincidences

Haslams Used Books
Haslams Used Books Photo by Gina Clifford

Founded in 1933 during the Great Depression, Haslam’s Bookstore is a “third place” for many people in the small St. Petersburg, FL community. Its owners share great stories with regular customers, celebrate local authors, and revel in helping people find books that sometimes change lives. Checking email on an iPhone and downloading the latest John Grisham thriller from Amazon, many wonder about the future of independent booksellers. Haslam’s, however, is not a typical bookstore.

According to Ray Hinst, the manager of Haslam’s Bookstore since 1973, Haslam’s is haunted. Perhaps the most notable story begins with Jack Kerouac. Back in the 1950’s, an inebriated Jack Kerouac frequented Haslam’s so that he could relocate his books to the more prominent top shelves. Fast-forward to a few years ago, Jack’s books mysteriously began dropping from Haslam’s shelves. When word spread, psychics flocked to investigate. After full-fledged Ghostbuster-style investigations, the psychics proclaimed that Haslam’s is teeming with spirits, and Jack Kerouac’s spirit is likely among them as he attempts to reshelf his books.

Judge Robert Beach is a believer. In fact, Judge Beach, a prolific world traveler, has reserved his own section in Haslam’s travel book section. Haslam’s has even affixed a small brass placard in the travel section that reads “Reserved for the spirit of Judge Robert E. Beach.

Judge Beach Placard
Judge Beach Placard Photo by Gina Clifford

Reminiscent of how the wands choose the wizards in the Harry Potter tales, Ray says that if you feel a strong connection with a book you pull from the shelf, you should buy it. Ray believes strongly that Haslam’s customers are bound to the books they ponder.

To pick up a book and put it back on the shelf sets off a perturbation in the universe.”

Numerous stories prove Ray’s theory as he recounts some amazing coincidences relating to customers and books. One of his more memorable stories concerned a woman who was seeking an uncommon translation of a hand bible. As Ray handed the woman the book she sought, she discovered her mother’s name embossed inside the cover of the book. It was her mother’s bible. Even more amazing, neither the customer nor her mother ever lived in the area.

In an interesting coincidence of my own, I took a friend to visit the bookstore one rainy weekend. As she perused the spiritual/occult/religious section, she stopped abruptly to observe two books she randomly shelved on her own bookshelf at home were staring back at her in the same order on the Haslam’s bookshelf.

Yet again, we’re reminded of the Harry Potter stories as Tea Cup, a lanky, mottled grey feline born feral and raised at Haslam’s, slinks around the store like Crookshanks. Tea Cup, who warily slinks through the store, leaps onto high shelves and even sits on the register as she observes the throngs of customers milling around the store. Like Crookshanks in the Harry Potter tales, Tea Cup seems capable of judging persons with ill intentions. On more than one occasion, Tea Cup has alerted the staff to nefarious customers.

Tea Cup - Halsam's cat
Tea Cup at Haslam's Photo by Gina Clifford

Haslam’s allure lies in serendipitous search and discovery. Old physical books, inseparable from the spiritual realm, offer travel to far lands, adventures in outlandish fantasies, and maybe even a connection to the original book owner long passed from the physical world. If you believe in ghosts, this is a great place to haunt on a Saturday afternoon. If not, it is still a great place to discover old books just waiting to “choose” you.


Legoland Florida: The Young Lego Geek’s Paradise

Like Steve Jobs was to Apple fans, Legoland Florida is to all of the young Lego fanatics.  On Saturday, October 15, 2011, thousands of loyal fans from around the world converged on the grounds of the new Legoland Florida theme park for its grand opening.  Legoland Florida did not disappoint.  It was uncanny how passionate and informed the young fans were about Lego.  It was eerily similar to how adult Apple fans admired Steve Jobs and his fabulous tech gadgets. It was fun to discover all of the ways Lego fans chose to display their love for the Lego brand.

Aaron and Nine year old Max from Sanford, FL express their love of Lego.

Young Legoland fans scouting out the park map
Young Legoland Florida fans scouting out the park map. Photo by Gina Clifford
A young Lego fan expresses his passion for Lego bricks with this cool t-shirt
A young Legoland Florida visitor expresses his passion for Lego bricks with this cool t-shirt. Photo by Gina Clifford
Lego Star Wars fans with the very cool Lego R2-D2
Lego Star Wars fans with the very cool Lego R2-D2 at Legoland Florida. Photo by Gina Clifford
Lego Shoes
Cool Lego Shoes worn by young Legoland Florida visitor. Photo by Gina Clifford

Legoland Parks are designed to appeal to kids between the ages of two and twelve, so I talked to a bunch of kids in this approximate age range (4 – 13) to learn about their favorites parts of the park. Kids enjoyed sharing their experiences in the park, so taking an informal, non-scientific poll of kids’ favorite experiences at the park was a snap.

The Dragon coaster was definitely the favorite attraction in the park in my poll. Other very popular rides for eight- and nine-year-olds were the Driving School, the Flying School, and the Technics Test Track roller coaster.

Unofficial Favorite Legoland Activity Poll
Unofficial Favorite Legoland Activity Poll

Theme parks, by their very nature, are extremely stimulating to our senses.  Legoland Florida, though, is a bit more laid-back than the usual theme park. In fact, there are many areas of the park where families can take a break.  Miniland USA is a great place to linger and take in the amazing details at your own pace.  Cypress Gardens, renewed to its original splendor, is indescribably beautiful and a perfect place to escape from the crowds for a bit.  Winding paths open into breathtaking vistas of the gardens and Lake Eloise. There are even benches along the shore of the lake under giant oak trees.

Cypress Gardens
Cypress Gardens fully restored to its historic splendor in a section of the new Legoland Florida Park. Photo by Gina Clifford

Several moms noted that there was no sign of over-stimulated children crying and screaming at the end of the day at Legoland Florida.  Kids that I spoke with were happy, relaxed, still smiling, and bubbling about their experience in the park– even if their parents were looking worn-out.

Nine- year-olds can be very fussy eaters. Children with food allergies can pose an even bigger challenge.  Thankfully, Legoland Florida has healthy, tasty, kid-friendly options.  Because we are a wheat and dairy-challenged family, we headed to the Market Restaurant and enjoyed Asian noodles, grilled vegetables, rotisserie chicken, and assorted grapes. Our meals were tasty; the service was fast, and the staff knowledgeable and friendly.  We sincerely appreciated that the manager helped us choose items that were dairy- and gluten-free.

Legoland Florida has a store called the Minifigure Market just for building and purchasing minifigures.  This store was so packed on opening day that there was a 30-minute wait just to get in from around 4:00 pm until closing.  Minifigures, like Lego bricks, can be customized by mixing and matching parts and accessories. Young Lego fans love them.

All Legoland Florida staff members wear nametags made from Lego bricks, and many attach Lego Minifigures to their nametags. A little-know secret I learned from the Legoland Marketing staff is that Legoland staff members wearing a minifigure will exchange minifigures with young park attendees who bring a minifigure to trade. The Legoland staff members have great stories about their trades and love to interact with fans in such a unique fashion.

Adrian Jones, general manager of Legoland Florida wearing his Minifigure
Adrian Jones, general manager of Legoland Florida wearing a Minifigure on his nametag. Photo by Gina Clifford
Young Lego fan trading Minifigs with a Legoland Florida Staff member
Young Lego fan trading Minifigures with a Legoland Florida Staff member. Photo by Gina Clifford
Lego Fan With Lego Minifigure at Legoland Florida
Lego Fan With Lego minifigure at Legoland Florida. Photo by Gina Clifford
Michael, 11, and his Mom at Legoland Florida
Eleven year old Michael from Orlando poses with his mom at Legoland Florida. Michael is a Lego minifigure fanatic and recommends reading the Minifigures Standing Small book. He would love to trade for the Samurai Fan Pick minifigure. Michael attends Milwee Middle School and is the youngest member in his First Lego Robotics League. Photo by Gina Clifford

Clutch Powers fans will surely enjoy the 4D Clutch Powers Adventure movie in Fun Town.  The story is well-written, the effects are fun, and the characters are as enjoyable as ever.  Do not forget to find Clutch Powers on a  billboard in Miniland USA’s Las Vegas.

Clutch Powers 4D
Clutch Powers 4D. Photo by Gina Clifford

My family was lucky enough to stay at the Nickelodeon Suites in Orlando.  Nickelodeon Suites is one of the Legoland Florida Bed & Brick hotels, which includes 13 different hotels in the Orlando and Winter Haven areas.  With free shuttle service to and from Legoland, families visiting Orlando attractions can easily add Legoland to their vacation schedules. The short 45-minute bus ride to the Legoland Park was a relaxing way to arrive at the park without having to worry about parking. The best part about the Nickelodeon Suites, however, is that it is a destination full of fun all by itself. It is the ultimate kid hotel and complements the Legoland experience nicely.

We really appreciated the comfort of our two-bedroom suite, complete with sink, microwave, and mini-refrigerator. The kid-centric theme got a double thumbs-up from our nine year-old, especially the very cool bunk bed, TV, Sponge Bob wall décor and colorful and convenient shelving.

Sponge Bob Themed Room at Nickelodeon Suites in Orlando, Florida
Sponge Bob mural in themed room at Nickelodeon Suites in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Gina Clifford

The beautiful pools and water parks were probably our nine-year-old’s favorite parts of the Nickelodeon Suites Resort.  Like Legoland Florida, the Nickelodeon Suites designed its grounds with kids in mind, and the water parks are no exception.  There were plenty of lifeguards attentively watching the swimmers and water slides, too.

Nickelodeon Suites Lagoon Water Park
Nickelodeon Suites Lagoon Water Park. Photo by Gina Clifford

The character breakfast was quite a hit with the youngsters. Popular Nickelodeon characters like Sponge Bob and Dora the Explorer danced and posed for photos with their fans. Oh, and the food was great, too. In fact, because our server asked about food allergies, we were able to talk directly to the chef. He made us outstanding dairy-free, gluten-free pancakes.

Honestly, the character breakfast appeals mainly to the 4- to 6-year-olds.  Our nine-year-old enjoyed watching the crazy singing and dancing, but has long outgrown his love of live dancing TV characters.

There is much more to see and do at Legoland Florida and Nickelodeon Suites.  Judging by the passion and creativity I witnessed at Legoland Florida, the future Steve Jobs is probably a Lego fan and wants nothing more than to spend a day or two in paradise at Legoland Florida.

Thanks Nickelodeon Suites and Legoland Florida for the press package.

Geeking Out With Theme Park Designers at SATE’11

Shane Skaggs of Menkin Media
Shane Skaggs of Menkin Media, Photographed by Gina Clifford

When I told my nine year-old that I met the person who created the Clutch Powers Lego hero, he screamed with excitement. The true heroes of the theme park world (the people who dream up, design, and build our favorite themed attractions around the world) converged at the Ports of Call at Sea World in Orlando, Florida recently to share, socialize, and engage at the SATE (Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, and Experience) conference. The Themed Entertainment Association hosted SATE’11 at Sea World around the theme “The Power of Story”, and its conference attracted some of the coolest theme park geeks in the world.

How cool it was to peek into the themed entertainment design business for a day. I learned the quirky story behind the Swarovski Crystals theme park in Austria, the origin of Lego’s Clutch Powers hero, and that Disney is creating a new Avatar attraction. Best of all, I chatted with some of the coolest and most successful themed entertainment professionals in the world. These folks win Thea, Telly, and Emmy awards.  They take inspiration from and pay homage to architecture, nature, Hollywood movies, and history. Their palettes contain everything from computer-generated movies, to sophisticated combinations of video projection, architectural construction, sound design, motion simulation, water, wind, air, story telling, and more. The projects they build might surprise you. We all probably think about Disney and Universal Studios when we think of themed entertainment, but I quickly discovered a whole universe of interesting themed entertainment projects.

Shane Skaggs from Nashville, Tenn. is a video specialist for Mankin Media Systems and he is passionate about storytelling through technology. Looking a very youthful 31, Shane shared a great story about how his company participated in converting a church’s youth center interior into a House of Blues-inspired theme complete with a 30-foot projection screen. The church, located in Louisville, KY, is called The Block. Do not be fooled by the simple name, the architectural details and technology integration inside of this building are stunning.

The Block
Inside The Block – Photo by Jody Forehand of Visioneering Studios, used with permission

Dina Benadon and Brent Young of Super 78, based in Hollywood, Ca, are rocking the museum world in Singapore, where they have designed a 360-degree immersive experience called Typhoon Theater in the Maritime Xperiential Museum – Resorts World Sentosa.

Maritime Xperiential Museum
The Maritime Xperiential Museum-Resort Photo by Jason Mendoza, used with permission.

The experience, opening in October 2011, literally and figuratively sinks the audience into the story of a 9th century trading vessel along the Maritime Silk Road as a massive typhoon hits. Using state-of-the-art in-theatre effects including projecting video onto painted silk, passengers find themselves in the depths of the ocean, up close with the shipwreck and magnificent marine life. Water spray, temperature changes, sound effects, and wind machines make the experience completely immersive. Dina and Brent designed Typhoon Theatre’s powerful story around a real shipwreck. The Maritime Xperiential Museum was built to house the Jewel of Muscat, a reproduction of a shipwrecked Arabian dhow found preserved in sediment.  According to Wikipedia, the wreck contained the biggest single collection of Tang Dynasty artifacts  ever found in one place and revealed previously unknown details about trade between the Middle East and China.

Kristy Scanlan and Joshua Wexler of Threshold Animation Studios in Los Angeles, Ca, really understand geek moms and geek dads. It is obvious that they both share a deep passion for fun and creativity in their work. For example, Kristy, who is head of production at Threshold Animation Studios, revealed that in the Bionicles movie, produced by Threshold Animation Studios, hieroglyphics written on the walls are actually names of production staff members.

Joshua is a self-proclaimed geek dad and he proves it in a big way.  Joshua, co-founder of Threshold, has been a Lego fan since childhood and is the father of two seven year-olds. He is also the creator of the Lego hero, Clutch Powers, cleverly named after the Lego term Clutch Power — the strength of the connection between Lego bricks. Joshua, in homage to Superman, Star Wars, Monty Python, Aliens, and Indiana Jones, dreamed up Clutch Powers so that Lego might have its own hero. He pitched the idea to Lego and Lego loved it.  The rest is history.

Clutch Powers Billboard in Legoland Florida Miniland USA
Clutch Powers in Legloland Florida Miniland USA- Photo taken by Joshua Wexler, used with permission

As the mother of a Clutch Powers fanatic, I asked Joshua for some cool, undocumented facts about the movie.  Joshua delivered. The Arthur Fol character’s name comes from the acronym A.F.O.L. or Adult Fan of Lego. If you visit Legoland Florida, which opens on October 15, 2011, be sure to check out Las Vegas in Miniland USA to catch a glimpse of Clutch Powers on a billboard there. While you are at Legoland Florida, check out the Clutch Powers 4D attraction, which was designed by Threshold Animation Studios.

Theme parks are the ultimate immersive experience, and the people who dream, design, and create them are among the most dynamic, creative, and fun people on the planet.  Therefore, the next time I visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or stand in line at the Legoland Florida park, I will go with a newfound appreciation for the real heroes behind these amazing immersive experiences. Thanks SATE’11!

Education Week: Child-Led Project-Based Home Learning

Harry Potter
Photograph taken by Gina Clifford

When J.K. Rowling released each of her Harry Potter books, young fans flocked to bookstores, stayed up late finishing the books, and then eagerly shared feelings and predictions about future books, characters, etc. with friends. These fans learned everything they could about J.K. Rowling’s fictional world on their own without prompting and in addition to regular schoolwork. Project-based learning taps into this kind of interest and passion by providing children with the time and space to create, think, and develop around their interests. As a result, learners gain critical thinking skills as they engage in design, problem solving, decision -making, and investigative activities.

Child-led project-based home learning is most similar to unschooling in that there are no tests, no teachers, no homework, no grades, no desks, no worksheets, no schedules, and no set curriculum.  Instead, there is a project, chosen by the child and supported by the parent. However, when math or physics is needed, learners take time to learn the formulas, arithmetic, and methods applicable to the project.  This on-the-job approach makes the fact-based portion of learning much more relevant and interesting. Best of all, project-based inquiry provides many opportunities for deep learning on a topic. I like to compare project-based learning to how a doctoral student operates in order to become the expert and defend a thesis.

With project-based learning, parents and children work together to explore interests.  Rather than a student-teacher relationship, the project-based approach creates a collaborative environment.  Learning takes place on the couch, in the grass, or around the kitchen table.  Learner and parent discuss, strategize, itemize, and plan projects. The parent role is very important.  Young learners need help defining and refining realistic project scope and goals, acquiring resources (field trips, museum visits, chemistry glass ware, etc.) and need plenty of encouragement.

So, what types of topics make great projects? Any interest can become a project and any parent can facilitate learning.  The golden rule is to let the child choose — trust the learning process.  Remember, the parent is not the expert here.  The parent simply facilitates the learning journey.  The Internet, public libraries, museums, and local organizations and clubs are just some of the great ways to acquire expert knowledge.

occult books for research on ghosts
Photograph by Gina Clifford

For example, my home learner’s latest project involves investigating ghost stories of New England.  I have no special knowledge or expertise in this area, but I can still help him acquire further learning resources. He became fascinated with ghosts after picking up a book in a used bookstore.  He has decided to map the specific locations where the stories occurred, learn about the history of these areas as it relates to ghosts, compare different accounts from similar locations, scan newspaper archives for ghost-related stories in these areas, and even go on local ghost tours to find out what kind of stories exist in our area.  Perhaps he will even interview local people who want to share their own ghost stories.

Because there are no grades, measuring progress or success in project-based learning is based on participation, engagement, and through original creations. Here are some suggestions:

  • Research and write a novel
  • Participate in competitive contests (music, science, art, athletic, spelling, geography, math, cooking, etc.)
  • Join and participate in community clubs
  • Volunteer in the community
  • Self-publish book of poems, stories, art (
  • Write a screenplay, storyboard, and script and produce a movie
  • Participate in public musical performances
  • Learn to play a musical instrument
  • Compose original music scores
  • Join an athletic team
  • Document travel and field trips
  • Learn a foreign language and display competency through writing, speaking, or conversing online, in person, and through recorded media.
  • Maintain a science lab notebook and portfolio of projects (photograph, document, videotape)
Learn to play a musical instrument
Photograph by Gina Clifford

Keeping a daily journal and a portfolio of major activities and projects is a great idea.  Whether or not your state requires these items, many colleges appreciate this sort of documentation in lieu of official transcripts when reviewing applications.

Learning should be fun.  Four hours a day of focused work on a project leaves plenty of time for play.  Spend the rest of the day at a community pool, playground, homeschool co-op, or invite some friends over to play with the Legos!

Child-led project-based learning is a powerful way to engage kids with their world in a deeply meaningful and satisfying way.  Let your child decide what to learn and how — be there for guidance and support.   Measure success not only through original creations and active participation in activities, but by how happily engaged with learning your child has become.  Relax. Engage. Have fun!


Further Resources on Child Learning and Engagement Issues

Legoland Florida: A Geeky Preview

Adrian Jones Legoland Florida
Photo property of Legoland Florida used with permission

Legoland Florida officially opens Saturday, October 15, 2011, but I was lucky enough to get a recent behind-the-scenes tour.

Prediction: Lego fans: Prepare to go crazy at Legoland Florida.

First, the park is beautiful. Amazingly detailed giant Lego sculptures are everywhere. Secondly, the rides and attractions are highly interactive. We cannot wait to try out the dark shooter ride and experience the 4D films! Third, the Lego brand comes to life throughout the park in every detail from employee nametags through an entire section of the park built from Lego bricks (Miniland  USA).  Fourth, can you say bricks, kits, and minifigs for sale?

When Legoland Florida opens, it will be the world’s largest Legoland.  Legoland Florida also boasts a Lego-themed ski show (pirates have taken over the shores of beautiful Lake Eloise).  Legoland Florida is dripping with Lego geekiness.  In fact, its difficult to predict who will enjoy the park more, geek parents or Lego geeklets.

Lego Darth Vader
Lego Darth Vader and R2-D2

All Legoland rides are kid-friendly and playfully characterized as pink knuckle rides. In fact, Duplo Village is an area dedicated to Legoland Florida’s youngest visitor.  In Lego Kingdoms, a colossal castle dominates this section of the park.  Oh, and it has a stunning roller coaster, the dragon, built into it.  The dark shooter ride in the Land of Adventure is a Lego-themed ride where laser guns are used to shoot targets. Laser tag fans will be first in line for this ride.  The new suspension coaster that simulates flight in Lego City sound like serious fun and not too scary!Lego Einstein

Lego Einstein under construction at the Imagination Zone


Legoland Florida field trips are the best theme park value anywhere. Period. Legoland Florida has committed to making the park as affordable as possible so that any young Lego lover can afford to visit.  For school groups of fifteen students or more, field trip visitors enter the park for as little as $5 each.  Field trip visitors are treated to 45 minute educational sessions directed by trained facilitators. Learning session participants use Lego bricks, gears, and even Mindstorms robots to learn about friction, balancing forces, and programming. By the way, field trip admission includes complete park access for the entire day!

With a pick-a-brick shop, a minifigure shop, and a licensed brand Lego kit store, there will be plenty of Lego-branded merchandise available at the park.  Legoland education materials such as Lego Mindstorms kits, gears, and pulley pieces can also be purchased at the park.

My favorite part of the park is Miniland USA.  Miniland USA features scale models of iconic architectural buildings from around the U.S.  Visit Washington, D.C., New York City, Las Vegas, and of course, various cities around Florida. According to Legoland Florida Master Builder, Jason Miller, a team of Legoland master builders traveled around Florida to photograph and study interesting buildings, landmarks, etc., before choosing and building the Florida section of Miniland USA.

Made entirely from standard Lego bricks, each structure in Miniland USA is meticulously detailed and built to-scale. What is my favorite Miniland USA model? It is either the Hemingway house in Key West or the Kennedy Space Center complex. The Hemingway house features Hemingway Lego cats roaming all over the place.  The Kennedy Space Center complex model is amazing and includes the Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad, the crawler (the vehicle that carries the space shuttle to the launch pad), and the VAB building.

The Pirate ships and the Daytona 500 track are shaping up to be amazing models, too.  Jason promises that the Daytona 500 track model will feature motorized cars racing around on the track when the park opens.

Jason Miller, Legoland Florida Master Builder
Jason Miller, Legoland Florida Master Builder

Proof that Legoland Florida really understands the passion people have for Legos is Jason Miller, resident Master Builder of Legoland Florida.  Jason works in the Legoland Florida model shop, building and overseeing brick building for Miniland. Jason has been building with Legos his whole life and even studied mechanical engineering in college. What was Jason’s favorite college course? Jason enjoyed Introductory Engineering Design because he designed and built a Rube Goldberg device using straws! Although Jason is a genius model builder who loves math, his secret weapon is social studies.  Jason credits his interest and appreciation for social studies as a key to accurately portraying people and places in Miniland USA.

It was an honor to tour the model shop. Instead of bolts and screws, Jason’s shop is filled entirely with shelves upon shelves of bins full of Lego bricks.  Harry Potter fans might compare the model shop to the Ministry of Magic’s Hall of Prophecy with Lego brick bins instead of glass globes filling the shelves.

Miniland architecture is stunningly beautiful, incredibly detailed, and fun. I enjoyed the brick humor used extensively on building names. Lego fans will probably spend hours studying architectural details of the Miniland USA models, but hardcore geeks are going to get a real kick out of all of the “Easter eggs” Jason has built into Miniland.  For those who aren’t familiar with Easter eggs, an Easter egg is a common term computer software programmers use to describe a cleverly hidden extra bit of program, such as an extra game level, a humorous screen animation, etc. In Miniland’s case, with a nod to popular movies, Jason has added a few famous characters.  I am not going to reveal their locations, but Legoland Florida’s Miniland includes characters from Men in Black, Sister Act, and Star Wars (hint: wears a black mask and breaths heavily).

Atticus Shaffer (Brick) in Lego
Brick Heck in Lego – Miniland USA – Legoland Florida

The most interesting Easter egg is peering out of a window in the Statue of Liberty. Child actor Atticus Shaffer, who plays Brick Heck in the ABC show “The Middle”, visited Legoland Florida over the summer as a special guest.  Atticus is a huge Lego fan (hence the name Brick in the show) and thoroughly enjoyed his time at Legoland Florida.  As a tribute to Atticus, Jason created his character, Brick, in Lego. Be sure to look for Brick when you visit the park!

So, request some vacation time, purchase your Legoland Florida tickets, pack up your family, and head to Florida for the October 15, 2011, grand opening of Legoland Florida.  Plan to spend a few days at the park since serious Lego fans may not have time to experience everything in a single day. Wear a hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen. I will see you there.

Follow Legoland Florida on Facebook for the latest announcements, photos, and events.  Visit the Legoland Florida website for a map of the park, accommodations, and to purchase tickets.

Learning Through Legos: S.T.E.M. and Back Again

Lego Bricks
Lego Bricks by Gina Clifford

Legos are internationally cherished small plastic interlocking building blocks and minifigures that can be taken apart and used to build other objects. Over the years, Lego has expanded its creations to include products like gears and pulleys and even electronic parts for constructing programmable robots. As a result, there are popular Lego robotics leagues and Lego education products focusing squarely on programming, solar, and even wind energy exploration. So, we see the science, technology, engineering, and Math (S.T.E.M.) connection, but what do Legos have to do with other stuff like reading, writing, or art?

Learning by Doing

First, kids love to learn by doing. Period. In fact, noted computer scientist and constructivist from the MIT Media Lab, Seymour Papert, believes so strongly in learning by doing that in 1998 he worked with Lego to create Lego Mindstorms, a programmable brick that can be used to make robots. The name for the product came from Papert’s book, Mindstorms, published in 1980. Lego even funded some of his research! Let’s take these little S.T.E.M. jewels and extend their reach into non-traditional starring roles in the arts and humanities.


Lego Pirates
Lego Pirates by Gina Clifford

There’s nothing like necessity for prompting a child to read.  Lego kits come with detailed instruction manuals that a child must read and follow in order to complete the model.  Therefore, young Lego builders are developing their reading comprehension every time they follow the instructions for a new model.

More interesting, though is tying a piece of literature to a building project.  Imagine building scenes from Alice in Wonderland out of Legos.  Alternatively, build and then reenact your favorite scenes from Treasure Island in Lego. Check out literacy expert Susan Stephenson’s great suggestions on this topic.


Susan also provides ideas for using Mini-mizer, a free online digital Lego minifigure creation tool.  Mini-mizer is a cool tool for creating a wide array of digital minifigures that can be saved by taking screen captures.  It would be fun to use these neat screen captures in original comic strips, stories, etc.

Digital Storytelling

Lego-themed stop-motion videos are extremely popular.  A quick search on YouTube yields thousands of kid-created Lego stop-motion animation videos riffing on popular movies like Star Wars and Harry Potter.

Creating a stop-motion animation video isn’t kid’s play, though. Stop-motion animation takes serious time and skill. Creating even a rudimentary Lego stop-motion animation video requires developing at least basic photo, video, and sound editing techniques. More elaborate videos often involve developing a story board, writing a script, creating an original music score, adding special effects, learning about copyright rules, and even marketing a video to friends and fellow fans. In spite of the time and effort required to learn, young Lego fans painstakingly learn these skills on their own without prompting. In addition, young Lego engineers who explore stop-motion animation end up developing writing and story-telling skills as they explore new ways to express themselves through Lego.


Batman minifig
Created with Mini-mizer

Creative kids are in good company, too. Pixar animator, Angus Maclane, builds with Lego bricks to help him unwind after animating all day.  He also builds Lego models of animated characters to help him visualize his digital creations in 3-d.


Nathan Sawaya, a New York-based artist who has taken Lego bricks beyond child’s play with his traveling art exhibition, is an inspiration to all aspiring Lego artists.  As a child, Sawaya drew cartoons, wrote stories, perfected magic tricks, and played with LEGO. Nathan’s Lego sculptures are stunningly realistic  fine art that adults and children can enjoy together. Check out Nathan’s museum tour schedule to find an art museum near you that might be hosting an exhibition of Nathan’s work.

So, those sweet little bricks are really kids’ prototyping laboratory wares.  Fertile imaginations unleashed beyond STEM flow freely wherever the creative spirit dictates.  Oh! Don’t worry. Leaving the S.T.E.M. path actually leads back to it, sometimes profoundly. Check out Jim Bumgardner’s 2007 GeekDad article explaining how he erased his classroom math failures through creative discovery — outside the classroom.

Now go build some cool Lego creations with the kids!



May the Force Be With Joe

What do Star Wars, The Lion King, The Matrix, the Batman movie series, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Indiana Jones movies have in common?  Joseph Campbell’s work was the inspiration for all of them. Actually, Joseph Campbell influenced many more great artists, musicians, and authors. J.K. Rowling (the Harry Potter series) and Christopher Paolini (the Inheritance series) probably also drew inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s work.

Now a documentary film about Joseph Campbell’s work, Finding Joe, is coming to the big screen. According to, Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood, Tony Hawk, Rashida Jones, Laird Hamilton, Robert Walter, Robin Sharma, Catherine Hardwicke, Sir Ken Robinson, Akiva Goldsman and others are interviewed in the film.

The film explores the famed mythologist’s studies and their continuing impact on our culture. Finding Joe opens on September 30 in Los Angeles, CA. Subscribe to e-mail updates on the official Finding Joe website for updates about movie viewing locations.

Who was Joseph Campbell? Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1984) was an American mythologist, writer, and lecturer best know for his work in comparative mythology. Great authors like James Joyce and Thomas Mann and respected German Philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche influenced Campbell profoundly. Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949, was his first book that described the monomyth or hero’s journey. A monomyth is a pattern of actions found in most epic mythical tales throughout the world. Once you learn the pattern, you will recognize it in many, many modern works.

What if Joseph Campbell never published his thoughts, ideas, and perspectives on comparative mythology? Through comparative mythology, Campbell popularized the idea that humans have an impulse to create stories and images that, although localized to a particular time and place, contain similar universal themes. If it were not for Joseph Campbell’s work, perhaps Star Wars, Batman, The Matrix, and other stories would have followed smaller, less epic adventures and might not have enthralled so many fans. Perhaps some of them wouldn’t even have been writtern.

If we examine the heroes in our favorite epic tales by stripping away the time and place, we find heroes who accept an epic challenge, set out on the adventure, endure many trials and hardships, encounter help along the way, and then return triumphant to bring good to their world. Sound familiar? It’s the basic formula for all of our favorite modern epic tales, but its roots are very old.

Young Star Wars might find it interesting that George Lucas was profoundly influenced by Joseph Campell’s work as he was developing Star Wars. George Lucas eventually became friends with Campbell after Lucas publicly acknowledged the influence Campbell’s writings had on Star Wars. When Campbell’s book The Power of Myth was made into a six-part television documentary originally broadcast on PBS in 1988, the first five episodes were filmed at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.

So, [insert your favorite epic hero’s name here] fans, learn more about the inspiration for [the name of your favorite modern epic adventure book or film here] in the “Finding Joe” documentary film! To learn more about Campbell’s life and inspirations, check out the Wikipedia entries.  The Joseph Campbell Foundation has comprehensive information on all of his works.


Collect Micrometeors During Double Meteor Showers This Week

Collect micrometeors during meteor showers
Photo by Gina Clifford

The Delta Aquarids and Perseids meteor showers overlap in the coming days, providing several great meteor shower viewing opportunities.  The National Geographic website has some great tips on viewing the showers.

Beyond viewing, we are planning to physically capture some meteorites.  Well, actually we are setting-up to capture micrometeors.  We can’t wait to see what star and comet dust looks like under a microscope. Micrometeors are small, light, metallic, rocky debris left by comets and stellar explosions. The best time to capture these particles is shortly after a meteor shower event, so we have consulted the book 100 Amazing Make-It-Yourself Science Fair Projects book to guide us through the process.

Collecting your specimens

Gathering micrometeors sounds highly technical, but the procedure is straightforward and even younger children can participate.  Place a glass pie plate outside for a few days before and after the meteor shower event to collect rainwater (the micrometeor particles fall to the ground attached to raindrops).  If you live in a dry region, you can fill a pie plate with distilled water and collect micrometeors that fall to the ground attached to dust particles.

After you’ve successfully collected rainwater (or dust particles) for a few days after the meteor shower event, cover a strong magnet with a small cellophane bag and place it in the dish, slowly sweeping the magnet across the dish (micrometeors are rich in iron and will be attracted to the magnet).

Carefully remove the magnet and place it in a second dish filled with distilled water. Remove the magnet from the bag and swish the bag around in the water until any micrometeors fall to the bottom of the plate.

The next step is to evaporate the water from the pie plate so you are just left with your micrometeors.  If you do not have a hot plate, you can use the oven but be sure that your pie plate is made from Pyrex or another oven safe material.

Collect the specimens with a magnetized sewing needle and mount the specimens onto microscope slides for further investigation.  We are planning to use a simple hand magnifier lens but an inexpensive digital microscope will work fine, too. Check out this previous GeekMom post if you’d like to learn more about using a digital microscope.

If anyone manages to capture any specimens, please share your photos (or stories) in the comments section of this post!






Buzzing About

While everyone else is busy comparing Google+ to Facebook, I have been checking out a different cool social media application called is a free online application that connects to your Twitter stream and harvests the most popular links being shared by those you follow on Twitter.  Therefore, it removes the “chatter” from your stream to reveal only the most popular links.   Here is how describes itself:

We ignore the chatter and only look at links shared in your network. Then we trend those links and ignore those that get lost in the noise. The result:

You’re always in the loop without ever getting exhausted, people will wonder how you manage it. It’s because you aren’t average. You have Strawberry Jam!

The keyword search feature works wonderfully and returns quality links shared in a network anywhere from real time up to the last 24 hours.  If you have worked hard to find great twitter accounts to follow, you will love  Think about how RSS feed readers help manage your online news gathering process and you will begin to understand the power of So, whether you follow cooks, crafters, geeks, or bookworms on Twitter, you can use to present only the really good tweets.

Although is still a closed beta product, its interface is very polished and intuitive.  I really like the daily e-mail alerts feature that sends popular links from up to four of your chosen keywords.  I did not have any luck getting the list feature to work, but I will just ping the folks on Twitter and let them know.

The site hints at upcoming Facebook integration, so this product has tons of potential, especially if it can filter Facebook fan page links. As for future features, I would love to be able to switch between multiple Twitter account streams without having to create a separate account for each Twitter account. In the mean time, I love watching the cute little bee, Beeta, pop out from behind the results box and let me know how many popular links it found. is currently in closed beta, but if you tweet a request to @strawberryapp, you will likely get an invite to this new, super cool, content gleaning secret weapon.  You can also register through the website. If you get an invite, be sure to provide feedback to so they can make it even better.


Google Breadcrumb: Slightly Geeky and Fun Mobile Learning Tool

According to a Microsoft infographic on the Digital Buzz website, there are four billion mobile phones in use around the world.  Even more intriguing is that mobile Internet usage is on course to overtake desktop Internet usage by 2014.

In addition, of those four billion mobile phone users, over 60% of them are using their devices to play games.  Thanks to Google Breadcrumb, these four billion people can now create their own learning games without having any programming skills.

Google Breadcrumb is a Google Labs product that enables just about anyone to create simple text-based, mobile learning applications.  With only three additions to plain text, creating a working quiz is amazingly intuitive.  Breadcrumb is designed to work on any internet-enabled smart phone or computer. As a result, even those who do not own a computer can use it.  As with all Google Labs applications, Google Breadcrumb is an experimental application, may contain bugs, and could even be discontinued by Google in the future.

You will need a Google account to get started, but the application is completely online and free.  Creating quizzes is one of the most obvious applications but some people are using Breadcrumb to create data center troubleshooting guides or training guides.  By the way, kids will enjoy creating applications, too, because there is virtually no learning curve.  So, encourage the kids to create their own applications to help them study, quiz their peers, or even invent new uses for the tool.

When you have finished your application, test it by clicking on or scanning the QR code that accompanies your application.

Click on or Scan this QR code with mobile app on your camera phone to view a Google Breadcrumb quiz.

To understand how Breadcrumb can be used, check out the quiz we created while learning Google Breadcrumb.  Please share links to your projects by leaving a comment on this post.

With mobile devices gaining popularity at such a rapid pace, Google Breadcrumb encourages mobile learning through tools that anyone in the world can use.



MoonBots 2.0: The 2011 Google Lunar X Prize Lego Mindstorms Challenge

What a cool way to spend the summer! Google has partnered with First Robotics and Wired Magazine to create an X Prize challenge just for kids.   In this competition, kids build and program Lego Mindstorms robots while learning what it takes to win the Google Lunar X Prize.

Although there’s bound to be some incredibly tough competition from hard-core Lego Mindstorm veterans, the focus of this challenge is really on learning. What a great opportunity this is to introduce those nine- and ten-year-olds to their first real-world project.  Regardless of whether or not the team consists of robotics experts or enthusiastic novices, Google challenges you to build a young team focused on having fun while learning.

Of course, teams will use math, science, and basic computer programming in this challenge. However, they will also be developing real world communication and cooperation skills.  The challenge requires teams to complete a written essay, produce a video, create a CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) design, create a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) outreach project, and complete a live lunar mission game.

Kids ages nine through seventeen are invited to register their teams before June 13, 2011.  Teams can consist of between three and six individuals, one of which must be an adult advisor.  To learn more about the challenge visit the official MoonBot website.


Toe Shoes: Rethinking the Family’s Footwear

Vibram fivefingers Bikila toe shoes

As self-proclaimed barefoot enthusiasts, our family embraced toe shoes as soon as we became aware of them.  Invented several years ago by Vibram, toe shoes provide each toe with its own pocket.  Additionally, there’s no cushion at all – just a bit of tread attached to a stretchy foot-conforming material and a hook and loop mechanism to adjust fit.  These new shoes look odd and many think of them as just a fad, but proponents claim that toe shoes allow our feet to function naturally as they do when we walk and run barefoot.  We decided to find out if these shoes are all hype or if they’re the best minimalist shoe design ever invented.

According to the podiatry channel, the human foot and ankle contain 26 bones (one fourth of the bones in the human body), 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments.  According to an interesting article in New York Magazine, the human foot contains over 200,00 nerve endings, one of the highest concentrations anywhere in the body.  So, with all of this intricate natural engineering mostly canceled out by bulky, boxy, cushiony shoes, we were intrigued by shoes that let our feet to do their jobs.

Fashion aside, these shoes are intriguing.  Toe shoes won’t go well with an evening dress or business suit, but they’ll feel right at home at the beach, kayaking, walking the dog, running, or even yoga.  I know some folks who want to try them for rock climbing!

The Fila Skele-toes are great for kids.  Marketed for gravel, water, mountains, grass, mud, trees, rock, pavement, and dirt, you can understand how they might appeal to boys.  Our youngster loves the thick stretchy nylon tops and thin but substantial tread that allows him to feel as if he is walking barefoot.  He loves to wear them for running, bike riding, and practicing martial arts in the back yard.  Because they fit like a glove, he runs more naturally than with he does with traditional sneakers.  In fact, in normal sneakers he’s a clumsy runner and falls a lot, so the Skele-toes make him seem like a gazelle when he runs.

Fila Skele-toes
Fila Skele-toes tread design












My toe shoe of choice is the Vibram fivefingers Bikila, designed specifically for walking and running.  My Bikila’s are amazing on grass or soft ground.  Normally, I struggle to find traditional running shoes that fit properly.  Usually, I’m constantly adjusting the laces to keep my feet from becoming numb while still tight enough to keep my feet from slopping around in the shoes.  Then there’s the sock shift that occurs when socks bunch up in the shoe during a run.  Worst of all, thick cushioned treads on traditional running shoes make turning an ankle more likely, especially on uneven terrain.  When I’m through running in normal running shoes, my big toes often throb.

Vibram fivefingers Bikila toe shoes

So, shod in my new Bikilas, I set out for a run on Mother’s Day evening as the last rays of the sun gave way to dusk’s cool breeze and twinkling stars. I chose to run through my neighborhood in the grassy sections between the sidewalk and the street.  Feeling the soft earth beneath my feet allowed my toes to grip, balance, and adjust my posture as I hit my stride.  No lace pressure to adjust, no thick padded tread to stress my ankles, no socks to bunch up, and no excessive pounding sensations in the knees made running a joy.

As I neared the last steps of my run, I sensed a smooth, writhing movement underfoot.  I instantly lifted my foot as I realized I’d stepped on an unsuspecting snake, but not before the creature managed to strike.  Alarmingly, the snake wasn’t the garden-variety garter snake but a venomous cottonmouth (water moccasin). It slithered onto the road where I was able to make a positive identification.  Unfortunately, the snake had pierced my thin shoe with one of its fangs and the bite was now bleeding.  With no time to lose, we drove to the emergency room.  After spending several hours under observation, no symptoms appeared.

Amazingly, the snake either withheld its venom, or because of my quick reaction, did not have time to release it into my toe.  Either way, I credit these wonderfully tactile shoes with saving me from a horrible experience.  I truly believe that if I had been wearing traditional running shoes, I would have landed on the snake with much more force and would not have known it until the snake had latched on firmly and more vehemently.

We’re convinced that the active family will find these shoes superior to bulky, cushiony traditional athletic shoes.  People who enjoying walking around barefoot will find that these shoes are made for them.  Others will need time to adjust to these shoes before running long distances.

To learn more about the science of toe shoes, check out the New York Magazine article.

To find stores that sell Vibram fivefingers toe shoes, use the handy store locater on the Vibram fivefingers website (

Fila’s Skele-toes are available at JC Penney’s, Rack Room Shoes, and Dick’s Sporting Goods stores.

Five Useful Computations With Wolfram|Alpha


Wolfram|Alpha is best known as a free online computation tool for math and science. It can solve calculus problems while showing you the steps and it can show you how much a teaspoon of salt weighs. Wolfram|Alpha is to knowledge what Google is to information, but it isn’t a search engine – it’s a computation engine.

As powerful a tool as Wolfram|Alpha is for math and science, it has interesting applications for everyone, not just math and science geeks.

Here are a few interesting, non-traditional computations to try with Wolfram|Alpha.

1. Comparing Colleges

If your kids are planning for college and need a quick way to compare student body size, tuition or accrediting agencies between colleges, they can retrieve comparisons on important basic information about the colleges. Use a simple comparison query to retrieve results in a nice tabular format.

Example: Notre Dame | Penn State

2. Relocation Tools

Find out if a city’s cost of living is higher or lower before accepting a new job. Try a simple comparison query between your current city and a prospective city to get valuable crime, population, and weather statistics before you move.

Example: Washington DC | Austin Tx

3. Food

Wolfram|Alpha’s nutrition engine provides detailed nutritional information on many common foods.  If you’d like to compare the nutritional information of beef and chicken, simply type a comparison query like beef | chicken. You’ll need to select the types of processing (ground, smoked, cuts, etc.) to get accurate comparisons.

Example: beef | chicken

4. Dates

Find out what famous people were born on your birthday or how many days, weeks, and years you’ve lived.

Type in your birthday or other date to get specific data about that date.

Example: September 11, 2001

5. Occupations

If you’re looking for a career change but aren’t sure if it will pay off financially, type a simple comparison query like computer programmer | accountant to get helpful occupational comparison data.

Example: computer programmer | accountant

If you enjoy the Wolfram|Alpha website, check out the vast array of computations Wolfram|Alpha can perform. If you’re a mobile device user, you’ll be glad to know that there are Wolfram|Alpha apps available for the iPhone and iPad through the iTunes store and for Android devices through the Wolfram|Alpha website.



Ten Geeky Facts About Shamrocks

Shamrock in the garden

We grow a beautiful patch of white clover in our yard, and enjoy searching for the lucky four leaf specimens. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, my family is hosting a four-leaf clover hunt in our backyard clover patch. We won’t be picking them, but we’ll mark them with little flags. The family member who finds the most four leaf clovers in ten minutes wins a pressed four leaf clover. We haven’t decided what we’ll do if someone finds a specimen with more than four leaves, though!

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and because I’m a huge fan of the humble clover, I’ve collected ten geeky facts about shamrocks.

Ten Geeky Facts About Shamrocks

  1. The White Clover (Trifolium Repens) is the traditional variety of clover recognized as a shamrock.  A shamrock has three leaves.
  2. Shamrocks that have four leaves are rare and are the traditional ‘lucky charms’.
  3. Each leaf of the clover represents something: the first is for hope, the second is for faith, and the third is for love.  If there is a fourth leaf, it is for luck.
  4. Experts claim that there are about 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every four-leaf clover.
  5. Researchers found the gene in clovers that turn ordinary three-leaf clovers into the four-leaf types.
  6. If you find a four-leaf clover, you can take a cutting from its plant and put it in a cup of water until it grows roots.  Plant it in your yard to start your own lucky patch.
  7. 1620, Sir John Melton wrote, “If a man walking in the fields finds any four-leafed grass, he shall in a small while after find some good thing.”
  8. One clover is actually one leaf of a larger plant, with three leaflets (normally).
  9. White clover provides nitrogen to turf grass, reduces a lawn’s water needs, and converts bare soil into biologically active soil that beneficial organisms above and below the soil surface.
  10. Clover leaves naturally produce anthocyanins, a red pigment. Anthocyanins are believed to have certain health benefits.


Celebrate Pi Day by Learning the Secret of the Circle

circle-300x257Hands-on projects are great learning tools for kids, especially when they involve the word ‘secret’. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Pi Day (March 14 or “3.14”) with kids than to help them unlock the circle’s secret and discover Pi!  This fun activity uses common office supplies and household materials and is easy even for younger kids.

Materials needed

  • A compass or two different sized round containers from which to trace around the bottom
  • A sharpened pencil
  • A ruler
  • A calculator
  • Long lengths of heavy string or yarn
  • Scissors to cut the string


Follow these steps to discover the secret of the circle.

Tip: Use a compass to draw two different sized circles. It’s best to draw them of drastically different sizes.

  1. Lay out the length of string around the outside edge of the first circle, cutting it to fit precisely once around the outer edge.
  2. Now measure the length of string using the ruler and record this measurement as the circumference of the large circle.
  3. Draw a line through the center of the large circle and extend it to the edges of the circle. This is the diameter.
  4. Measure the diameter of the large circle using your ruler and record this number as the diameter of the large circle.
  5. Now, calculate the ratio of C/d (circumference divided by the diameter). A calculator is best for younger students so that they understand the concept of Pi even if they haven’t yet learned division.
  6. Repeat these steps for the smaller circle.

The secret of the circle is that no matter what size circle you start with, dividing the circle’s circumference by its diameter (C/d) always yields Pi!  Note that this activity will likely not  yield precisely Pi because of the somewhat crude measuring techniques.  However, repeating this exercise for many different sized circles reveals the pattern that holds the circle’s deepest secret.

Further reading

Here is a bit more information on Pi.

Wikipedia’s Pi information.

I found this lesson in one of my favorite math teaching aids, ‘Math Wizardry for Kids‘.


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