Raising Kids With Weed – Living the High Life in Colorado

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

Our family has lived all over the country, following my husband’s job. With each new location I made an effort to get to know the cultural climate of our new home town. In Utah I read up on the Mormon faith. When we landed in Upstate New York, we explored the Big Apple as much as possible. Then four years ago we moved to Colorado. It was immediately apparent that I needed to research the topic of marijuana.

Medicinal use had been legal in my new state since the year 2000. The summer we moved to town the country was gearing up for a presidential election and the state was gearing up to see if its residents would be some of the firsts in the country to allow legal recreational use. By the first week in November it came to be. We were now parenting our four children in the land of legal weed.

This lead to an exploration of not only how marijuana can be used by amputees like myself to mitigate pain but also, unexpectedly, how it might be used to treat one of my children for an unexpected and difficult condition. The answers were eye-opening.  Continue reading Raising Kids With Weed – Living the High Life in Colorado

Everything You Need to Be a Craft Beer Geek—Except the Beard

Grab a brew and pull up a chair - We're talking beer! Photo Courtesy iStock.
Grab a brew and pull up a chair – We’re talking beer!
Photo Courtesy iStock. Copyright: Silvrshootr

“Let’s grab a drink!”

The next thing you know, you find yourself in a bar surrounded by copious amounts of facial hair, skinny jeans, and ironic conversation Ts. You look at the menu only to find 653 different types of beer—of which you know two. You have a couple of choices: play a game of craft beer roulette, or go ahead and order the domestic light. Of course, the only thing that screams “girl” more than that is a white wine spritzer. Allow me to offer a third option—a crash course in craft beer geekdom!

First, let me stress I have nothing against domestic light beers. They definitely have their time and place. I’ve never yet asked for a bully porter at a tailgate—but a sliver bullet goes down nicely. And the consistency (as we’ll learn later) of the American lager is a testament to the skill of master brewers. Of course, light beers are still the biggest sellers, but this is the era of the crafts, and a little knowledge is helpful. Unless you enjoy taking that brew gamble…

Lesson 1:

So what makes a beer a beer, and not, for example, wine?

The Four Essential Ingredients of Beer. Photo Courtesy iStock Copyright RBOZUK
The Four Essential Ingredients of Beer.
Photo Courtesy iStock. Copyright: RBOZUK

Beer is a deceptively simple drink. All varieties can be boiled down to four basic ingredients: water, yeast, hops, and grain. Seems simple enough until you remember the vastness of that beer menu and its 653 varieties.


These miraculous little beasties are what give beer identity and national style. At the most basic level, and the least understood if my impromptu poll of folks at the grocery store is any indicator, yeast determines if you are drinking an ale or a lager. Yes, it’s hard to believe while wading through a brew house, but all beer breaks down into these two categories.

Most craft brews are ales, while those domestic lights I mentioned are lagers. And here’s what makes that above mentioned consistency so impressive: Lagers must be brewed at a lower temperature, thus giving less room for error. Ales brew at higher temperatures and are more forgiving. Which is probably why they’ve been around longer, historically, and are the go-to for the basic home brewer. Those higher temps allow for a wider variety of flavors to break out, but that can often lead to slightly unique profiles in each batch. Lower temps require careful monitoring to create uniform flavor. So the next time you grab that fine American Pilsner, remember it has some impressive credentials of its own.

While many brewers will develop their own propriety yeast, you heard me right, it’s the ancestry of the little bugs that matters the most. If a beer is labeled as “Belgium,” that is simply a reference to where the yeast got its passport stamped, not the country where the beer was brewed. Nationality isn’t just a label where these little guys are concerned. Belgium yeast imparts different flavors than German or American yeast. And that’s just the prepackaged varieties—just wait until we get to the free-range critters!


In case you don’t know, and very few of my grocery store interviewees did, the hops used by the modern brewer are actually the flower of the plant Humulus lupulus. Varieties are sold as bittering, aroma, or dual purpose, and just like yeast, contribute greatly to flavor.

Photo courtesy iStock Copyright: LICreate
A handful of goodness – brew ready hops!
Photo courtesy iStock. Copyright: LICreate

Hops add depth of flavor and help to balance the malt. While there are certainly many hop-heavy beers—some American craft brewers seem to subscribe to the adage “go big or go home” when it comes to hops—malt-intensive brews are equally available.

Like yeast, hops are unique to their area of origin. Their soils, climates, and country of birth help impart unique layers of flavor. But unlike yeast, they don’t determine the nationality of a beer. Often, a brewer will experiment with several types of hops added at different points in the brewing process. A true melting pot!


When most people think of beer, they think barley. And they’d be right. It’s barley that becomes malt. And the char on that determines the color of the beer—the darker the char, the darker the beer. And without barley, the yeast wouldn’t be able to do their business. Barley is unique in providing just the right sugars for the little beasties to consume and make those byproducts we enjoy so much: bubbles and alcohol! Barley even provides that nice frothy head when not all its proteins get converted to sugar.

But barley isn’t the only grain to be found in that amber goodness. Wheat, rice, corn, rye, and even oats make occasional appearances in today’s craft brews. Wheat beer tends to have more body and a hazy, often tart, complexion. Rice in a beer is about as nondescript as on a Chinese menu: great as filler, but no flavor. Corn is similar, although it is often thought to impart a bit more sweetness. Rye can be toasted to add caramel notes or left natural for more spice. Oats give creaminess—think oatmeal stout.


Lesson 2:

Now that you know what makes a beer a beer, you can probably take a stab at that menu. However, to get more in depth, and provide the beer novice (or the beer-stuck-in-a-rutter) a slightly better idea of what they are ordering, I gathered a group of willing victims volunteers at our local Flying Saucer Draught Emporium to taste-test a wide variety. All for the sake of this article, of course.

Ground Rules:

While different arrangements are possible, many bars list their beers by either category (e.g., “sours” or “hop-heavy”) or country of origin. For the purpose of this article, I am using country as a means of categorization.

Along with my (slightly hung-over) friends, I was assisted in this tasting by Cari Contreras, girl-wonder-certified-cicerone, and someone everyone should take drinking. If you are wondering what a cicerone is, think sommelier but for beer. (Yes, they exist—and just knowing that word will go far toward your craft-geek-cred, but for a few more crafty words, see the bottom of this article.)

And away we go…


American Craft Beers come in lots of styles. Photo courtesy iStock Copyright Maksymowicz
American Craft Beers come in lots of styles.
Photo courtesy iStock. Copyright: Maksymowicz
  • CLASSIC PILSNER: Craft varieties of this standard lager may be harder to locate, but if on a menu, this is often a safe bet. Although my group of tasters agreed it was “a standard beer” and “great for a summer day at the pool,” when drinking a craft beer they wanted “more personality.”
  • BLONDE: This is an entry level—i.e., easy to drink—craft ale. My tasters enjoyed this saying it was “more complex” and “a bit more bitter.” One even decided it had “just a tinge of s’mores.”
  • WHEAT: Wheat added to the barley gives this ale its cloudy color and crispness. Another entry level beer described by one taster as “the beer equivalent of the lemon drop.”
  • AMBER: Sometimes called “Red Ale.” Intended to be drinkable, but not bland with a strong toasty or caramel undertone. The tasters agreed calling it “a cozy, full beer with a slightly mouthwatering aftertaste.”
  • BROWN: The American version of the classic English Brown Ale does what ‘Murica does best and cranks the volume. More hops, more malt, and more brown. We agreed with thoughts ranging from “a beer latte” to “dessert!”
  • PALE ALE: This American adaptation (more hops) of the English brew has come to be the standard of craft beers. One taster decided this beer “goes with dinner and life pretty well.” But, if you don’t like hops, be warned.
  • IPA: Stands for India Pale Ale, and like many of these “American” beers, has a European cousin. But, as an American beer, the flavors are turned up to eleven. (If you don’t get that, may I suggest renting This Is Spinal Tap?) Most of the hop-crazy beers fall into this category or its brother IMPERIAL IPA.
  • BARLEYWINE: This is a beer, despite the name, but will have a higher alcohol content, often 7 to 12%. You are warned. The American versions are, you guessed it, hoppier but not as extreme as an IPA. The tasters ranked this one high, asking if it came in pints!
  • STOUT: Another American version of an English standard. Roasted and toasty, maltier and full of American hops making it stronger than its British ancestors. The tasters found it “thick and warm with hints of molasses and roasted coffee.”

English/Scottish/Irish: (Note: All the beers listed above as having British equivalents can often be found in both the amped-up American versions and the more sedate English brews on extensive beer menus)

  • PORTER: The first mass produced style of ale has a dark roasted, chocolaty malt flavor. The tasters were mixed, with one saying it was “too malty” and another liking it with the comment that “it didn’t taste as dark as it looked, like a stout-light.”
  • MILK STOUT: Also called a SWEET STOUT or a CREAM due to the addition of unfermentable lactose (milk) sugars. This beer lives up to its name with the tasters saying it “looks like a coke” and “smells as sweet as it tastes.”
  • OATMEAL STOUT: In either British or American versions, the oatmeal adds creaminess to the malty richness of the base stout. “Don’t be scared of how dark it is! It’s easy to drink, it just fills you up—bread in a glass!”
  • DRY STOUT: Guinness is the quintessential example. A favorite of many. “Not heavy,” with an unusual “umami nose.” “Crisper than it looks” Cari Contreras pointed out the unusual feature that Guinness uses nitrous gas to disperse the beer rather than the traditional CO2, which leads to less gas intake, and thus less gas (eh hum) output! (We can all appreciate that.)
  • RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT: Born of the connection between the English and Russian monarchies, this stout was brewed to survive the trip to the Russian court. Generally not a favorite with my tasters, with one saying “it feels like they threw everything at it,” and another calling it “ugh in a beer.” However, it has its fans, with a lone tester saying it was what she thought of when she wanted “to taste Russia.”
  • 60/70/80/90 SHILLING: A traditionally Scottish beer with a gradation of strengths from the weakest 60 (rarely found and then only on tap) up to the “wee heavy” 90. An interesting beer if you are looking for unique—very few hops, which don’t grow well in Scotland, but definite notes of the ever-available Scottish peat. The tasters gave this style top ratings saying it was “hard not to like” and “tasted like fresh air and Scottish Heather.”
Welcome to Cologne, Germany, home to fan favorite Kolsch beer. Photo courtesy iStock Copyright artJazz
Welcome to Cologne, Germany, home to fan favorite Kolsch beer.
Photo courtesy iStock. Copyright: artJazz


  • WEIZEN/HEFEWEIZEN: The most popular beer in Southern Germany. In 1516, the use of wheat was outlawed in beer, but as the nobility could ignore these laws with impunity, wheat beer became synonymous with royalty. While that is an interesting fact to drop while bellied up to the bar, the most important thing to note about this brew is that it is usually found with an excess of yeast and you may be either asked how you’d like that yeast, or provided with the remainder in the bottle. Many connoisseurs like to sprinkle the yeast over the top of the beer. This met with mixed reviews, with one taster saying it was too much like “drinking sea monkeys.” The beer, sans sea monkeys, however, had high marks with notes of banana and crisp wheat.
  • KOLSCH: Traditionally brewed only in the city of Cologne, this beer is a hybrid as it uses ale yeast but is then cold lagered like a traditional lager brew. When my tasters gave point scores, this style got the highest overall score of any beer we tested. Universally described as “easy to drink but with enough oomph to feel authentic.”
  • VIENNA LAGER: Obviously not an ale. Very dark larger with lots of malt, but not enough to save it from being described as “crisp, drinkable, and completely forgettable.”
  • BOCK: What the IPA does for hops, this does for malt. One taster said it has so much malt it’s “almost chewy.” Enjoyment of this beer, like the IPA, is mostly determined by malt preference. Those who enjoyed the malty beers loved, those who didn’t, well, didn’t.


  • WIT/WHITE/WITBIER: This white ale was the first type of beer to include hops. This beer often incorporates elements of wheat and spices such as coriander and orange peel. Another highly rated beer with the tasters. Comments such as “smells like a barnyard, tastes like heaven.”
  • SAISON: Meaning season, this ale uses a yeast closely related to the yeast used in red wine which produces a uniquely spicy brew. Cari pointed out that all saisons have a higher alcohol content and a slightly bitter taste due to the increased number of phenols produced by this yeast. But what you need to know is our tasters’ opinion, which was to rank this their second favorite! With comments like “peppery” to “my husband’s first choice, one of my top three!”
  • DOUBLE/DUBBEL: If it seems like we skipped the single, we did! They are only available at the brewery with doubles found in retail. This is a strong beer with not so subtle hints of prune. Not a favorite with the tasters with one describing it as “cloying, like prune juice mixed with a beer.”
  • TRIPLE: This is a higher alcohol brew, but not exactly related to a double. A fruity beer described by my tasters as “a little like drinking a juicy fruit gum.”

    Belgium beers and glass of Triple. Photo courtesy iStock Copyright JurgaR
    Belgium beers and a glass of Triple.
    Photo courtesy iStock. Copyright: JurgaR
  • LAMBIC: Strange things happen in Belgium. I mean, honestly, waffles? I love them, but who decided to start ironing food? So maybe it’s no surprise that Belgium would be home to free-range yeast. This beer is made by opening the windows and the tanks and inviting whatever little beasties are nearby to stop in for dinner. The yeast bring their bacteria friends and have a party. If Cari’s dreams come true and sour becomes the new hops, this style will be everywhere. The yeast do the fermenting and the bacteria make the sour. Oddly, this was something of a hit with my tasters with one saying she must “have a masochistic streak” because she couldn’t stop sipping. “Like an aged cheese, or sour patch kids,” you have to keep sampling.
  • FRAMBOISE: This is a raspberry beer with a lambic base. Surprisingly, the berry moves the sour into sweet. In fact, the tasters thought it tasted “more like dessert” or “it’s the beer equivalent of a parfait!” Sweet and fizzy, “the smart girl’s answer to the apple-tini.”


Glossary of terms that will impress your friends:

Abbey: Beers brewed in the style of the Belgium (Trappist) monks, but not by the monks. Any beer can be named Abbey, but very few can be called Trappist.

Bock/Doppel Bock: Fun facts: Bock means goat, so look for that on most Bock labels. True Doppel Bock names will always end in “Atop” or “Ator.”

Cicerone: The sommelier of the beer world. Fun fact: there are close to 200 master sommeliers but only 7 master cicerones alive today. There are three levels of cicerone: certified beer server (level 1), certified cicerone (Girl-wonder-Cari is one of these), and master cicerone. Why so few? They’ll tell you its harder—believe it or not, beer is more complex. More ingredients, more origins, thus, more flavors. Just imagine the food pairings!

Daytime: Exactly like sessionable. Drink this at lunch and then head back to work. You’ll still be productive. Sort of.

Esters: Along with phenols, CO2, and alchohol, a byproduct of yeast fermentation. Usually responsible for fruity taste elements. More often found at higher temperatures of fermentation, thus more common in ales than lagers.

Humulus Lupulus: The plant that produces hops. From the Cannabis family. Only the female plant produces the “cone” that become hops.

Imperial: In a beer this means higher alcohol. You are warned.

Phenols: One of the by products of yeast fermentation, along with esters, CO2, and alcohol. Usually responsible for the spicy tastes such as clove and pepper. Can also create an undesired “medicinal” taste.

Reinheitsgebot: The German beer purity law of 1516 outlawing the use of wheat. Beer was strictly limited to barley, hops, water, and yeast.

Now get out there and order something new! photo courtesy iStock Copyright SensorSpot
Now get out there and order something new!
Photo courtesy iStock. Copyright: SensorSpot

Trappist: Beer brewed in one of the eleven Trappist monasteries in Europe.

Sessionable: The opposite of Imperial, lower alcohol. Meant to be drunk as part of a session of beers.

Umami: Another category of taste (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) meaning a meaty, savory taste. Warning: In the wrong company you will just sound pretentious if you use this word.





Not Just for Snowboots, This Dial Also Adjusts Prosthetics

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

In the world of prosthetics, any little change in the design of a socket can make a huge difference when it comes to comfort. Much like athletic shoe design, when someone comes up with a new idea that works, it can change the game.

Three years ago, I told you about a new idea in prosthetic leg sockets that I was very excited about. A guy named Joe Mahon, who just happens to be the very first prosthetist I had after my surgery, had found a way to make a socket adjustable, using the same kind of dial you might find on a snowboard boot. In the amputee world, this means a huge reduction in the number of afternoons you sit in an office, waiting for adjustments by the professionals. It also means a lot more freedom when you’re far away from your prosthetist, say on a hiking trail or lounging on a long lost beach. Continue reading Not Just for Snowboots, This Dial Also Adjusts Prosthetics

Walking On A Foot That Costs More Than A Car

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

When you get the chance to try out a product that retails for $70,000, you clear your calendar and sign up. If the product happens to be a computerized foot, it’s even more exciting.

I’ve been an amputee for almost 12 years and have worn about six different feet. They have gotten progressively better through the years. When I chose to have my amputation in 2004, I knew I’d be happy with the technology they had at the time. However, I also suspected it was destined to be an exciting new field for engineers and designers.

In fact, I had several arguments with my surgeon about how much of my leg to cut off (true story). He saw me as a patient who had a deformed foot, but a healthy leg from the ankle up. He wanted to cut it off right above my ankle. I knew if I wanted to be ready for the feet of the future, I’d have to have the clearance for them. I’d needed room for the hardware. We met in the middle and he did the amputation halfway up my calf.

I had been hearing about a brand new design in prosthetic feet and ankles that was coming from the lab of a guy named Hugh Herr. Mr. Herr is a rock star in the world of prosthetics. An engineer and an amputee himself (from a rock climbing accident), he’s spent a few decades designing prosthetics that make sense. The BIOM foot is a new way of trying to master a more natural gait.

Inside my foot shaped shell, a mini spring. Photo: Judy Berna
Inside my foot shaped shell, a mini spring. Photo: Judy Berna

The foot I wear today is basically a smaller version of the Cheetah leg you see Paralympic athletes using. I get the energy return by pushing down on the spring action, which propels me forward. This new design (the BIOM) actually has a computer built in. It uses a battery. It also promises to be able to give much more precise energy return.

Once I heard there was a scientific study being conducted on the BIOM, and it was taking place not far from me in Boulder, I signed up. Ironically, one of the parameters to be able to be in the study was having enough clearance from the end of your socket to the ground. Once again, I was glad I won that argument with the surgeon so long ago.

I showed up at the lab on the campus of the University of Colorado ready to try out this new idea. I’d heard great things about it, but had never known anyone personally who had one (most likely because of the price).

After meeting the two interns, the prosthetist, and the woman from the BIOM company, we got to work. My regular foot was taken off my socket and the new BIOM was attached to it.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

For the next few hours, I walked up and down a runway. My ankle was connected by Bluetooth to the tablet the prosthetist was holding in her hand. She could make adjustments to fit my own personal gait. Each amputee has their own unique settings, taking into consideration not just their gait pattern, but their height, weight, and how far up their amputation goes.

My impression? It felt like nothing else I’d ever worn. It’s so hard to use words to describe anything related to how a prosthetic feels. It’s a unique experience to begin with. Having the nerves in my stump being read by my brain as “foot” nerves, including still being able to feel my missing foot planted firmly on the ground, just complicates the situation.

Let’s start with how the ankle works. Every time I’d push down the toe, in a normal gait cycle, the ankle read how much force I was putting on it, and responded by giving the foot more or less propulsion forward. The first word that came to mind when I started out on that runway was “squishy.” It felt like I was stepping on something squishy, but not in a way that interrupted my gait, as would normally happen. With the squishiness came actual forward motion. As the prosthetist played with the settings, giving me more and less response, I was trying hard to read what that was doing to my foot and to my gait. It’s a mentally exhausting process.

The treadmill that got the best of me in the clinical trial. Photo: Judy Berna
The treadmill that got the best of me in the clinical trial. Photo: Judy Berna

To complicate my situation, my real foot isn’t totally normal. I’ve lost some range of motion and it wants to roll to the outside. I wear an insert in my right shoe, which helps keep my ankle upright in everyday life. But when walking in such a specific way, down that runway, I found myself concentrating on keeping my real foot doing the right thing, as much as I was concentrating on the new computerized foot. It was more than a bit distracting.

After the extensive settings stage, I moved to the treadmill. This is where the study was actually going to take place. Eventually, they put millions of little dots all over each subject, and cameras were posted all over the room to read what each part of the body was doing, all while the subject walked briskly on the treadmill.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that this stage really tripped me up. I do some work on treadmills at the gym. I set it on a slow speed and practice long strides, as a way of teaching my body what normal gait should feel like. But I never crank the speed up.

As they increased the speed at the lab, I found myself in a panic. I had to hold onto the bars on each side to keep my balance. Even having one of the interns standing behind me, with his hand on my back to reassure me that I wouldn’t go flying off the back, didn’t seem to help.

I’m just not used to walking fast. I’ve never been a fast walker. With my old foot strapped to that leg brace for so many years, I sure didn’t walk fast. Since I’ve had prosthetics, I rarely needed to be in a hurry and prefer to walk a bit slower, concentrating more on accurate gait. This treadmill test was a real challenge.

When it became apparent that I would not be able to keep the speed that was necessary for the study without holding onto the side rails, it was obvious to all of us that my part of the study was over. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t help more in the development of this new technology, but the researchers assured me that every situation taught them something.

They not only needed to know which types of amputees loved the foot, but also which types of amputees weren’t comfortable in it. I fall into the second category. There is great energy return with the BIOM foot, but it was almost too much help for me. I learned something about myself through this study too. I never realized how much I concentrate on both sides of my body when I walk. I consciously think about doing the heel strike with my prosthetic foot to make it work correctly, but I’m also very aware of my right foot, to keep it from rolling to the side. Having so much going on, on the prosthetic side, was just too distracting for me.

My regular foot, exactly as stable as I need it to be. Photo: Judy Berna
My regular foot, exactly as stable as I need it to be. Photo: Judy Berna

I’ve heard that people who had two normal ankles/feet, then lost one, love this foot. They say it feels, by far, the most like their natural foot. I have never had a good ankle on my left side. It’s always been locked up with little range of motion. The bit of energy return I get from the foot I’m wearing today was life-changing when I put on my leg. It was just enough to feel like I had participation from the left side, something I’d never had before. And in the end, it seems to be the exact amount I need. Having more just gave me too much to think about.

What I do like about the BIOM foot is that it’s literally the next step. It’s destined to be the forerunner in a whole line of prosthetic feet that will respond in new ways to what the body is telling it to do. Next year, there will probably be a new version. The year after that, another. Who knows what I’ll be trying out by the time 2020 rolls around?

I also love that its design addressed the problem of slopes. Most prosthetic feet have no ability to pick up the toe. This means when you encounter a slope, even a slight incline, you generally have to walk on your toe or risk hyperextending your knee.

I was really excited to try out this feature and the researchers were kind enough to let me play with that at a slower treadmill speed before they switched out the BIOM foot. I kept having to tell myself that I was on a slope, because I was walking as normally as I would have on a flat surface. I even asked the assistant at one point, “Are you sure you set it to a slope?” That’s an exciting idea for the future of prosthetic feet. You don’t realize how many slight slopes you encounter in life, from sidewalks that gently incline to raised crosswalks on city streets, until you struggle with not being able to raise your toe.

I think the BIOM will be a good fit for many amputees. For those who had two healthy legs and lost one, it is definitely worth trying. I can see how it might be very close to what they used to feel when they had their natural foot. Here is a video of a double amputee walking up hills and slopes with the BIOM, which is very inspiring to folks who want to regain their activity level after an amputation.

Two issues will need to be addressed. One is the price, obviously. The second is the care of the foot. It is basically a computer strapped to your ankle. I wouldn’t be able to knock it around like I do my regular titanium foot. I wouldn’t be able to walk through a stream or even a very wet parking lot, like I can now. I’d have to carry extra batteries (the black square on the back, in the picture) and make sure they were charged.

I’m a pretty low-maintenance person. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about taking care of my current foot. It’s practically indestructible, if I make sure to get it cleaned out a couple of times a year. It fits in my lifestyle.

I was excited and honored to be even a small part of the study that will improve the technology available to amputees. It’s a fluid market, and every new idea is welcome. I can’t wait to see what designs show up in the future. Maybe I will get that slope-climbing foot some day—just in time for a hike up a mountain with my kids.

Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge: And Back to School We Go

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 4.45.14 PM

Image: Scholastic

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Summer is waning. Even here in North Carolina, where the hot season tends to linger a little longer than I’d like, we’ve had hints of autumn. My daughter just started preschool, and my son is back to school next week. But they had some great times this summer—we traveled, we relaxed (well, at least they did), and we immersed ourselves in some great books.

5 Word Book Reviews (or less)

Here are the books that rocked my kids’ summer.

Get in on the Instant Win Action

Image: Energizer

Energizer® and Scholastic are partnering to create the “Power the Possibilities” campaign which gives moms the tools they need to unlock their child’s talents, fuel their ambitions, and set them up for future success. Parents can buy any specially marked pack of Energizer® brand batteries to scratch for a chance to win one of thousands of prizes that will power discovery and learning.

Prizes include a family trip to New York City, a Scholastic Study Corner Makeover, a tablet with Scholastic apps, a library of Scholastic books and more! Everyone who plays can also download free digital stories for their family.

Refrain from Brain Drain

The summer is almost over, but thankfully the Power Up and Read Summer Reading Challenge has you covered. Scholastic’s Maggie McGuire has 5 easy tips for making reading a priority for your child, like setting a weekly minutes goal, reserving special time to read together as a family, and celebrating reading accomplishments. It’s not too late to get your kids reading.

More Reading Resources

Scholastic has joined together with ENERGIZER® to power the 2015 Summer Reading Challenge and encourage families to find innovative ways to discover the power and joy of reading. It’s not too late to take part! Now through September 4th, visit Scholastic.com/Summer. Click the links below for a sampling of the fun resources you’ll find with Scholastic:


Scholastic is a GeekMom sponsor.

Back To School 2015: Electronics, Gadgets, and Shiny Stuff!

Back to School \ Image: flickr user Jesuscm some rights reserved
Back to School \ Image: Flickr user Jesuscm, some rights reserved.

It’s time to head back to school and in this year’s planning guide, we have a little bit of style, a little bit of gadgets, and a lot of coolness. So let’s get started!

Electronic Accessories
Witti Dotti ($69.99)
This app-controlled pixel light will keep you posted on all of your notifications, with the added bonus of being able to customize the lights to suit your style.

Photo App Keyboards \ Image: Photojojo
Photo App Keyboards \ Image: Photojojo

Keyboard Shortcut Skins ($30)
Keyboard Shortcut Skins by Photojojo are one of my go-to accessories for my MacBook Pro. I have the one for Final Cut Pro and it’s a huge help when trying to learn the program. Shortcut Skins are also available for Photoshop (CS4/CS5/CS6), Aperture (2.0/3.0), Final Cut Pro/Express, or Lightroom (2/3/4/5). The available keyboard models include the MacBook with black or white keys, Macbook Air 13″, Apple Ultra-Thin Keyboard w/o Numeric Keypad, and the Apple Ultra-Thin Keyboard w/Numeric Keypad. Use coupon code: GEEKMOM for $5 off!

Scosche’s freeKEY ($49.99)
For the student on the go, check out this roll-up bBuetooth keyboard.

Ultimate Screen Care Kit by Dust Off ($24.99)
Electronic users should have one of these in every bag they carry. It comes with a bottle of screen cleaner, a cleaning shammy, and a mobile cleaning pad.

Power Tap \ Image courtesy of Thumbs Up UK
Power Tap \ Image courtesy of Thumbs Up UK

Power USB Tap by Thumbs Up UK ($19.71)
The Power Tap is a fun and unique way to “turn on” power to your device for charging. The blue/red light tells you if the device is charging or not and offers a great little nightlight to any room.

Scanmarker ($79.99)
I’m not a fan of highlights in my textbooks because I usually end up typing my notes anyway. With the Scanmarker, I can just scan my notes in directly from my textbook without marking them up (makes for better resale value as well). The Scanmarker lets you capture text and then edit it on your computer.

Gunnar Optiks Gaming/Computer Glasses ($50-150 depending on whether you need a prescription)
These glasses ease eye strain for anyone who spends a lot of time looking at screens (computer or gaming). They really work. It’s not magic; it’s a combination of anti-glare coating and amber tinting.

Nyrius Aries Prime ($199.99)
Apple users have been able to stream their PC to a TV with the help of Apple TV and now Windows users can do the same thing with Nyrius Aries Prime. I use this at home when previewing my slideshows for class and I love it. My son loves it too because he likes to stream his Minecraft games to our TV.

Inateck MP 1300 13.3 Inch Macbook Air Sleave \ Image courtesy of Inateck
Inateck MP 1300 13.3-inch MacBook Air Sleeve \ Image courtesy of Inateck

Inateck MacBook Sleeve ($16.99)
A soft, felted sleeve for your MacBook. This gender neutral case allows you to transport your laptop in your backpack or purse in style.

Lumo Lift Posture and Activity Tracker ($79.99)
Posture is something everyone needs work on here and there. The Lumo Lift will tell you when you are slouching and keep a record of how much time a day you spend in a good posture. It’s a nifty little device for those of us who spend our day sitting at a desk and are not always aware of how we are sitting until it’s too late.

Kinivo BTH220 ($20.99)
I’ve had more than one pair of Kinivo headphones and for the price, they’re pretty good. These are over-the-ear headphones that work via Bluetooth, with buttons to play your music as well as make and receive phone calls.

Audiofly’s AF33 Headphones ($39.99)
If wired headphones are more your thing, check out Audiofly’s AF33. They may be on the pricey side, but they offer noise isolation and are comfy to wear.

Scosche’s goBAT 6000 ($54.99)
I love this little battery charger because it doesn’t require any cables. Just plug it into the wall when the battery dies and wait for the red light to go off. It’s also lightweight compared to other chargers and is small enough to fit into your back pocket.

Coffee Cup Power Inverter V2.0 ($34.99)
When my husband first saw this, he thought it was a mug you can heat up in the car. He was kind of close. It’s a charger that looks like a coffee cup and can accommodate up to two wall chargers and one USB cable. The best part is that it fits in your cup holder so there’s no awkward worrying about where to put it while it’s plugged in. 

Tablift ($59.99)
My brother saw this and thought I would be lazy for using it. He obviously hasn’t tried to lay in bed while watching lectures and taking notes. Not to mention, it’s great for keeping your hands free while watching a movie, so you can eat your snacks. I set it up the other day to hold my iPad to help me follow directions on a sewing pattern. Tablift helped keep it off the floor and out of my pup’s mouth. 

Stress Relievers and Fun

Recess for the Soul \ Image courtesy of Deepfun.com
Recess for the Soul \ Image courtesy of Deepfun.com

Recess for the Soul by Bernie DeKoven
Meditations on the mind’s “inner playground” are perfect for teachers to practice with kids of all ages. Parents too. Check out the recording Recess for the Soul by Bernie DeKoven to practice exercises for “inner swing set” and “teeter-taughter teachings.” It’s $20 for the CD, $9.99 for the iTunes album, or $0.99 per track.

Oregon Scientific Aroma Diffuser Elite ($99.99)
Who doesn’t want to wake up to the smell of their favorite essential oil? Instead of waking you up with a noise you just hit the snooze on, this alarm clock wakes you up to the essential oil of your choice. If you are not allergic, I suggest starting the day off with peppermint. It’s my favorite.

DreamPad 26 \ Image courtesy of ILS
DreamPad 26 \ Image courtesy of ILS

Integrated Listening System’s Dreampad 26 with Optional Bluetooth Receiver ($209)
Not everyone wants to fall asleep to white noise or music. Integrated Listening System’s Dreampad 26 has a built-in speaker that lets you plug in your device and listen to your heart’s content, while not disturbing those around you. If you want to keep your device charging while you sleep, pick up the optional Bluetooth receiver as well.

Lunch Box Jokes \ Image courtesy of Lunchboxjokes.com
Lunch Box Jokes \ Image courtesy of Lunchboxjokes.com

Lunchbox Jokes: 100 Fun Tear-Out Notes for Kids ($7.99)
Add extra humor to cafeteria time with Lunchbox Jokes: 100 Fun Tear-Out Notes for Kids. It’s especially good for 1st to 3rd grades.

Color Me Crazy: Insanely Detailed Creations to Challenge Your Skills and Blow Your
Pick up some colored pencils, make yourself a blanket fort, and color your cares away in this adult coloring book. I enjoy coloring in mine when I have a headache or when I’m anxious and it helps me forget the pain.

Scrabble Twist ($19.99)
Scrabble Twist is my newest addiction. It’s small enough to fit into a purse and has multiplayer and solo game features. A single game lasts about a minute, so it offers a quick break from studying. 


Xventure SmartCord Sling bag \ Image courtesy of Brakentron
Xventure SmartCord Sling bag \ Image courtesy of Bracketron

Bracketron: SmartCord Sling Bag ($24.99)
The Braketron: SmartCord Sling Bag will protect your tablet/smartphone and other personal belongings from the weather and has a special holder to make sure your headphones are close by. Great for anyone who has minimal stuff to carry.

Zelda Eject Backpack ($54.99)
My favorite part of this Zelda-themed backpack is not that it’s Zelda, but that the lunch box is on the outside and comes off. If you want to carry just the lunch box, unzip the edges and attach the shoulder strap. Otherwise, you have a cooler and a backpack in one.

Pelican Elite \ Image courtesy of Pelican
Pelican Elite \ Image courtesy of Pelican

Pelican Elite Luggage ($505)
For the students with expensive stuff in their luggage or who plan on taking it white water rafting, check out the Pelican Elite Luggage. I use mine for carrying my costumes to and from events so I don’t arrive with a broken Bat cowl.

Build On Brick Bookends ($19.99)
Build your own bookends with ThinkGeek’s Lego bookends. Lego bricks not included.

Zoku Ice Cream Maker ($25.49) and Zoku Slush & Shake Maker ($17.95)
The Zoku Ice Cream Maker and the Zoku Slush and Shake Maker are a must-have for the dorm room refrigerator. My family loves pouring soda into the slush maker and getting a frosty treat within minutes. And with Pinterest having truckloads of ice cream recipes, it’s hard to pick which one to make first.

AutoSeal Kangaroo Water Bottle with Pocket ($12.18) and Gizmo Sip Kids Water Bottles ($9.81)
Keep your student hydrated with the Kangaroo Water Bottle or the Gizmo. Both have a great seal on them and won’t spill when tossed in your backpack. (I toss mine in with my iPad all the time.) The Kangaroo comes in a variety of colors and holds 24 ounces. The Gizmo model comes in four different colors and holds 14 ounces of your child’s favorite drink. Both are dishwasher-safe. My suggestion is to keep only water in them if your only option is hand-washing.

Slim Sack \ Image courtesy of Greenpaxx.com
Slim Sack \ Image courtesy of Greenpaxx.com

Slim Snack
($13.95 for a four-pack)

Talk about your eco-friendly, multi-purpose product. Slim Snack is it. These leak-proof silicone tubes are perfect for packing fruit, granola, applesauce, veggies, or whatever. When school’s out for the summer, use them to make your own ice pops out of blended fruit or juices. Each one is easy to fill, even for kids, especially if you stand one up in drinking glass.


Toothless Tail Fin Fighter Skirt \ Image courtesy of WeLoveFine
Toothless Tail Fin Fighter Skirt \ Image courtesy of WeLoveFine

WeLoveFine Toothless Tail Fin Skater Skirt ($25)
Get your dragon training on with this skirt inspired by Toothless the dragon.

Avengers Assemble Charm Bead Set – ThinkGeek Exclusive ($119.95)
Assemble the charms!

Rocket Raccon \ Image courtesy of SuperHeroStuff.com
Rocket Raccon \ Image courtesy of SuperHeroStuff.com

Rocket Raccoon Hooded Women’s Tank Top w/ Tail ($44.99)
This is one of my favorite pieces from SuperHeroStuff.com because I get so many compliments on it. I love the fluffy ears and the removable tail.

Superhero Belts from Superherostuff.com ($17.99)
Keep those pants where they should be with superhero style.

Batgirl Rhinestone Watch ($34.99)
Every superhero needs a watch and this one is sparkly and awesome.

Tote and Scarf \ Image courtesy of Uncommon Goods
Tote and Scarf \ Image courtesy of Uncommon Goods

Library Card Tote Bag and Literary Scarf ($20 for the Tote and $48 for the Scarf)
Uncommon Goods, which specializes in high-quality items from independent makers, offers this pair of stylish accessories for teachers, librarians, or book lovers. The natural cotton tote is printed to look like a vintage library card, instantly noticeable by anyone who has every checked out a book from a library. The silk-screen cotton infinity scarf contains passages from a choice of three timeless classics: Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights. Both products are sold on their own, with the tote made in Brooklyn and the scarf by  Tori Tissell out of Portland, Oregon.

When it comes to back to school, you can never have enough gadgets. What items are in your students’ arsenal for the new school year? Let us know in the comments!

Disclaimer: GeekMom may have received samples of some of these items. 

Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge: Giveaway and #MondayMinutesGoal

Image: Natania Barron -- My daughter, her bunny friend, and her favorite book.
Image: Natania Barron — My daughter, her bunny friend, and her favorite book.

It’s been a crazy busy summer here in the house, and what’s probably the most exciting bit when it comes to reading is just how much my daughter Elodie is getting into the habit. She’s not yet at the age where she can read, but she’s absolutely in love with stories and pictures. Every night she wants me to read her another story (her favorite is still Please Mr. Panda, which she just can’t get enough of).

While this summer has meant new jobs, a big move, and lots of changes, reading books at night has become a huge part of our day. And, I’ll be honest—sometimes it’s the very best part of my day. You can tell by her adventures with the Energizer Bunny that it’s been a fun—and stylish—summer for all of us.

Image: Scholastic
Image: Scholastic

The Innovation Book Packet Giveaway

While you’re tracking your kids’ reading minutes, I wanted to share a great giveaway that they’re doing right now that’s just up the alley for our geeky readers. The innovation book packet is a collection of Scholastic titles showcasing fiction and non-fiction boos for kids to want to get lost in the world of science, STEM, and inventions. Awesome, right?

The packet includes:

  • The Magic School Bus and the Electric Field Trip
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret
  • Extreme Science Careers
  • Extreme Experiments
  • Plus Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge materials including reading logs, pledges, bookmarks, and more!
The  Innovation Book Packet. Image: Scholastic
The Innovation Book Packet. Image: Scholastic

Introducing #MondayMinutes

In an effort to log as many minutes as possible through the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge AND to break the world record for summer reading, Scholastic is setting special weekly goals for young readers. Every Monday they’ll be announcing a #MondayMinutesGoal, the number of minutes for kids to read together in one week (by the following Monday).

Image: Energizer
Image: Energizer

Whether your child or student is reading independently aloud or together with you, you can join in. Here’s how:

  • Have your child log his/her minutes on the SRC website or on a paper log/piece of paper
  • Take a picture of him/her proudly displaying their minutes
  • Share it on social using #MondayMinutesGoal and #SummerReading and tag @GeekMomBlog!
  • We’ll pick a random winner.

US addresses only, prizing provided by Scholastic. Entries accepted through 8/7!

Sign up for the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge

Scholastic is a GeekMom sponsor.

Is It Okay To Turn Amputees Away at Amusement Park Rides?

Photo: Judy Berna Canobie Lake, NH
Canobie Lake, NH. Photo: Judy Berna.

It’s summertime; the time you pack up the kids and head to the amusement park. If it’s hot outside you head to the water park. For most families, the only thing that might be worrisome is whether their youngster is tall enough to ride certain rides. But what if your child was turned away for other reasons—like the fact that they have a prosthetic limb?

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

In recent years, this has been happening more and more at parks around the country. It’s happening to children and adults. Sometimes it makes the local news and many times the article becomes a Facebook favorite. I have watched these stories with interest, since I am an amputee and have frequented many amusement parks without ever having a problem.

You might assume my point of view on this topic would be fully in support of the amputee in the story. Not necessarily.

First, let’s break down the issue. In the 12 years since I had my surgery, society’s acceptance of prosthetic limbs has changed dramatically. Amputees are no longer afraid of wearing shorts in public. In fact, the attitude has changed so much that most of the amputees I know have crazy designs on their legs that they like to show off.

I believe this change is part of the reason we’re seeing these stories about amusement park problems. Those who are missing limbs are no longer afraid of going on adventures with their families. And they are wearing shorts, so it’s very obvious they have bionic limbs. In past years, if an amputee showed up in line for a roller coaster, they most likely were wearing long pants, and the ride operator never knew.

Add to that the fact that amusement parks are more and more terrified of lawsuits. As our society becomes more sue-happy, these parks are having to be vigilant about safety rules and policies. For smaller parks, one major lawsuit could close their doors forever.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

So why would I ever not side with my fellow amputees, you might ask? The short answer is this: Every amputee is different, every prosthetic setup is different, and in some situations, they may not be safe on a ride they really want to try. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been an amputee, how strong the rest of their body is, how far they had to travel to get there, or how badly they want to try this ride. If it’s not safe, it’s not safe.

Let’s use roller coasters as an example to represent the average amusement park ride. Let’s say this particular ride has a bar over your lap and your legs hang down. This ride was designed by engineers who were using a standard body as their subject. The only deviance would be allowing for extreme heights or weights. My six-and-a-half-foot teenager is technically barred from a few amusement park rides because a person of his height is not technically safe in the design of that ride.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

If a body is of average height, but has legs that only go down to mid-thigh, this kind of ride could actually be very dangerous. Much like a child who is too small for a booster seat can slide under the belt and be harmed, an amputee with short limbs can easily slide out from under the safety bar. Even an amputee with one above-the-knee amputation runs a higher risk of sliding out.

Another issue is prosthetic limbs that might fall off. I am actually very surprised I was allowed to ride a roller coaster in NY that allowed the rider’s legs to hang down. I have a below-the-knee prosthetic, made of hard plastic, with a foot made of titanium. I was confident my leg would not come off, because the design I wear allows for me to be pulled across a room by my leg, with my prosthetic never even coming close to coming loose.

But if I didn’t have this system, or if it was a hot day and my leg was looser than normal because of sweating (which happens), there is a real risk that my leg could have come off and been a very dangerous projectile. With as tightly as parks now pack their coasters into the footprint of their property, there is a good chance a leg would hit a human target.

There is no way a ride operator can be trained on all the different kinds of leg systems. There is no way there can be a blanket policy that applies to every kind of prosthetic socket. There are many amputees who can ride specific rides very safely. But how do the teenage park workers decide who is safe and who is not? Herein lies the problem.

Amusement Parks are a fun way to make new family memories.  Photo: Judy Berna
Amusement parks are a fun way to make new family memories. Photo: Judy Berna.

I hate to see my fellow amputees, adults and children, denied a fun day at the park with their families. It breaks my heart to think of an amputee child being told they can “do anything” with their prosthetic limb, then be turned away once they are at a park. This actually happened recently.

And because there is much confusion about what is safe and what isn’t, the result is people who have perfectly safe prosthetic limbs being turned away. This is exactly what happened to the 8-year-old in the link above. She had a below-the-knee prosthetic covered in a gel liner, and was turned away from a water slide because her leg “might scratch the slide.” This is completely ridiculous.

Parks have become over-vigilant to the point of lacking common sense, which results in more and more news stories about amputees being denied access.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

After much thought, I’ve come up with one solution. It might never come to fruition, but we need to start brainstorming to solve this problem.

Since a prosthetist is really the only person who is qualified to determine how stable a limb might be and which rides it would actually be safe on, they need to be involved in the decision. There needs to be a standardized form, which is offered to all amusement parks and water parks. This form would be filled out by an amputee’s prosthetist and presented to the customer service desk at the park. Then a special ID could be issued to the amputee, which demonstrates to the ride operator that the amputee can board.

This form could easily be printed off from a park’s website. Parks could also offer a season “pass,” which allows an amputee to turn the form in once, then every time they visit that park, they can refer back to the original form and get their special ID tag.

Somewhere in the language of the form, there would have to be a disclaimer, so the prosthetist would not be responsible for any injury or accident that might happen. Otherwise, no prosthetist in his right mind would sign a paper like that.

It would take a lot of organizing to make this happen, but it would sure beat the system we have now, where every park decides for themselves what their rules about prosthetic limbs might be. And they usually err on the side of caution, which denies many “safe” amputees a chance to enjoy the park.

GeekMom Judy's nephew, Soul, enjoying an amusement park ice cream cone.  Photo: Judy Berna
GeekMom Judy’s nephew, Soul, enjoying an amusement park ice cream cone. Photo: Judy Berna.

As an amusement park customer, or as a mom or dad to kids who love them, how do you feel about amusement parks turning away amputees, solely because they have a prosthetic limb? I’d love to hear the opinions of you able-bodied folks out there. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Now excuse me as I go load up the car with kids. We are on our way to the zoo. That’s one place I know I’ll be welcome, bionics and all.

Amputee Round-Up: Prosthetics and Amputees in the News

Photo: Born Just Right bornjustright.com
Photo: Born Just Right.

As your token amputee GeekMom writer, I love periodically filling our readers in on what’s going on in the amputee world. Of course, there are always new advancements in designs of prosthetic limbs, but there are also issues facing today’s amputee that are unrelated to how our hardware fits.

Let’s start with some stories that have been making the rounds, about how amputees are accepted (or rejected) at amusement parks and water parks. This is a huge issue in the amputee world. It’s becoming an even bigger issue as more and more amputees are no longer hiding their artificial limbs, and celebrating the mobility they have achieved.

In my childhood, there would have been very few amputees seen at a water park, and if they came in the gate, they probably wore long pants and didn’t participate on the rides. Those days are over. Current amputees are realizing there is nothing to hide and no reason not to participate in fun activities with their family and friends.

Photo: Judy Berna Enjoying Canobie Lake in NH
Enjoying Canobie Lake in NH. Photo: Judy Berna.

On the flip side, you have amusement park owners who are living in a sue-happy society and are doing everything they can to stay out of court. Every summer, there are more and more local news outlets reporting on an amputee who was turned away on a ride, solely because of their prosthetic limb. I have a variety of feelings about this practice, some which might surprise you. I plan to share those with you in another post next week. For now, here are a few of the most recent stories hitting the internet.

This one hits me the deepest. It’s a story about a little girl who is very active, even with her prosthetic leg. She and her family have often frequented water parks and amusement parks and had no issues. Then, on their last visit, she was made to exit the water slide “because her leg might scratch the slide.” Now, I can understand if the park feels like her safety is at risk, but turning away an 8-year-old because she might scratch your slide? Ridiculous.

Here is one about one of our Purple Heart recipients, who lost both of his legs fighting for our freedom, being turned away from a ride at Six Flags.

And here’s one that might surprise you… a man turned away from an amusement park ride because he has no hands.

GeekMom Judy's friend Jordan, and her prosthetist. Photo: Born Just Right
GeekMom Judy’s friend, Jordan, and her prosthetist. Photo: Born Just Right.

Now, on to more uplifting stories. It has not been a burden to continue seeing this next story pop up in my feed over and over again. A fitness photographer named Michael Stokes has turned his camera on to some of our own military veterans, and photographed them like he would his able-bodied models. The pictures are stunning (but a bit too graphic to post here). He has started a Kickstarter campaign to be able to publish his photographs in a book.

When people approach Mr. Stokes and tell him what a great job he’s doing to help the self esteem of these amputee vets, he quickly corrects them. He has been amazed by the confidence and power his subjects had when they walked in his door. They are already at the top of their game and ready to take on the world. I have to say, I love seeing amputees portrayed in this empowering way. I know these stories help every adult who might lose a limb in the future and every child who is facing this surgery. It’s no longer about your life being over. It’s about your life being changed.

How can you not love a story about kids with prosthetics and Lego building blocks? Here is a great article about one of the newest bionic hands, which is Lego adaptable. This means a kid can build whatever he wants in that spot where a hand might go. Be sure to check out the precious picture of a little guy who built a backhoe for a hand. All of the sudden, not having a second “real” hand doesn’t seem so awful.

The field of prosthetic hands is changing by the day and here is one of the latest hands that has been created. I have a young friend who uses her “helper arm” for some things in life, and is watching with interest as these new bionic options are being created. For her, these are all just steps toward a hand she might wear in the future. It takes a lot of mental energy to operate a prosthetic hand. But for now, it’s fun to watch the technology explode in exciting new ways.

If you’re a gamer, you might like this article, about how they are using gaming technology to help some amputees learn to walk again.

Here’s another inspiring story, about a teenager with two prosthetic legs, who is excelling at high-school level sports and making his way to the Paralympics.

Are you a surfer by chance? Here’s a great link about a guy who is competing at the first ever World Adaptive Surfing Championships, as a double amputee.

And speaking of the ocean, we can’t forget the two brave teenagers who lost arms this summer off the coast of North Carolina, all because of shark attacks. Hunter Treschl is actually from my home state of Colorado, and has shown stellar maturity through is experience.

Twelve-year-old Kiersten Yow lost her arm on the same day, on the same beach, and is also showing great maturity as she was released from the hospital recently. I know both of these young people will be welcomed into the amputee community and will never have to feel alone in their journey.

Photo: Challenged Athletes Foundation
Photo: Challenged Athletes Foundation.

I can’t finish this post without calling attention to a great advocate of the amputee world, who is now gone. Robin Williams would have turned 64 last week. Yes, he was a genius in the world of comedy, but he was also a genius of humanity for the great energy he put into supporting disabled athletes through the Challenged Athlete Foundation. The CAF hands out grants every year, to help people of all ages be able to buy the equipment they need to stay active. Every year, they finance hundreds of those bladed running legs (and many more adaptive devices), so more amputee athletes can have the chance to run. If you were a Robin Williams fan, consider clicking over to the CAF site and making a donation in his name, in honor of his birthday. I’m sure he would have been very pleased.

So there you have it; some of the latest stories that are floating around the internet about the world I live in. Feel free to send me links that you might see. It’s nice to stay up to date on the latest in prosthetics and amputee life, with the help of my friends and family.

Unlock Big Adventures with Little Passports

Little Passports © Little Passports (Fair Use)
Little Passports © Little Passports (Fair Use)

Little Passports is a subscription service that sends your child a monthly package designed to teach them about a specific country. Each package includes activities and items themed around the culture of that month’s featured country. Geography has never been one of my strong points, in fact it was the subject I hated most at high school after gym, so I had more than a little trepidation when my son (FB) began to express a keen interest in the subject by constantly asking me to label maps and point out locations my husband and I had visited in the past.

Despite my lack of subject knowledge, I was keen to develop his interest at a young age—beginning first with simply buying a globe for his room and investing in an atlas. However, when I began to hear about the Little Passports service I was keen to sign him up for a trial.

Continue reading Unlock Big Adventures with Little Passports

Common Sense Graphite: Quality Educational Resources

Image: Common Sense Graphite

As a parent who is constantly looking for engaging and out-of-the-box ways to teach my kids and deliver content, I often look online for ideas. One of my go-to places for information about games, apps, and websites is Common Sense Graphite.

Common Sense Graphite is connected to the likely better known Common Sense Media, a site which helps parents make smart media choices with and for their kids. Common Sense Media also makes a fantastic Digital Citizenship curriculum, tailored for all grade levels.

The Graphite side, however, focuses on education specifically. It is aimed at teachers, but as parents, we are our kids’ first and longest teachers. You don’t need to be homeschooling to use this site. If you’d rather your kids spent time playing games which have at least some educational benefit, Graphite is the place to look.

What does Graphite offer? Fantastic search capabilities, ratings in a variety of areas, standards match-ups, screenshots, and tips to use in an educational capacity. You can search for just the free resources, by platform, by grade, by subject, and more. You can also read teachers’ ratings on the site as well, for even more real-life feedback.

Now, Graphite doesn’t host or create these games. They merely evaluate and review the games, apps, and websites available on the internet and in the off-line world. This makes them an independent resource not beholden to any company.

If you aren’t sure where to start, begin with the Top Picks section, which divides up some sure bets into subject areas and grade levels. Then, as you find resources you like, check out their related titles. This will lead you down a fun and eye-opening rabbit hole that will leave you with a long list of resources you want to check out with your kids.

Graphite doesn’t just review games and websites that deal with major subject studies. They also cover things like video and animation websites and apps, gaining global perspective, geography, art, music, and even resources and organizational tools for teachers themselves.

Here is a list of a few of the many interesting stand-outs:

  • Papers, Please – A bleak immigration game that forces players to make difficult choices. Great for teens.
  • The Republia Times – An editorial simulation that teaches about the introduction of bias. Also great for teens.
  • Quandary – A game about ethics and argumentation. Great for late elementary and middle school.
  • Crazy Gears – A fun physics game, for early elementary.
  • Smithsonian Quests – Researching already-curated topics teaches students to build skills. Great for late elementary through early high school.
  • Stellarium Mobile Sky Map – Makes it easy for students to identify night sky objects. Great for middle school through adult.
  • BioDigital Human – Allows students of any age to investigate the inside of the human body, systematically. Best for middle school and up.
  • Algodoo – An open-ended physics sandbox game allows kids to just play, unfettered.

Visit Common Sense Graphite today to find some games, websites, and apps to help boost your kids’ education, or just to help them learn more about their interests!

Disclaimer: I write educational reviews for Common Sense Graphite, but I would use them as a resource even if I didn’t. I stumble across curriculum-changing games and websites weekly.

‘Reading Rainbow’ For The Next Generation

© Reading Rainbow
© Reading Rainbow

A new Reading Rainbow DVD is out now, ready to give parents all the nostalgia of sitting in front of the TV and singing along with the theme song. While the show itself may be outdated, Reading Rainbow is moving ahead into the age of the internet with the robust online app Skybrary. Skybrary puts a library of hundreds of books and educational videos new and old at children’s fingertips, making for another great way to get in some invaluable reading time this summer.

© PBS Kids
© PBS Kids

Reading Rainbow: Animal Café

This affordable new collection features four classic Reading Rainbow episodes from the 1980s and 1990s. As time has passed, “Animal Café,” the titular episode, has turned into a historical look at the New York City of the 1980s, complete with a synth electronic soundtrack and glimpses of parts of the city that aren’t there any longer. The always entertaining Martin Short reads the picture book of the same name. The one-of-a-kind Gilda Radner narrates the book on the second episode of the DVD.

Classic Reading Rainbow episodes may be too slow and quiet for most kids of this generation, who are accustomed to the frenetic pace of current cartoons and the bite-sized entertainment of viral videos. But if you’re looking for some quiet time with a healthy dose of nostalgia, Reading Rainbow: Animal Café is a great reminder of life in the 80s along with all the enthusiasm about literacy you’d expect from the show.


Skybrary, the app for Reading Rainbow, also includes classic clips from episodes of the past along with new, current educational videos starring LeVar Burton. I came across a gem of a clip, a behind-the-scenes look at Star Trek: The Next Generation.

© Reading Rainbow
I would also make this face if I saw the model of the Enterprise up close. © Reading Rainbow

More importantly, Skybrary features hundreds of quality picture books, which kids can read to themselves or hear narrated. True to Reading Rainbow‘s style, the narration is slow and clear and some illustrations move with simple animations. Kids can turn the pages at their own pace, giving them time to work through words on their own or look longer at the pictures. Some books even include a discussion question for reading comprehension and a glossary for more difficult words.

There is definitely a varied, robust collection of books, with new content added weekly. Use of the site does require a subscription, starting at $9.99 for one month, but you can check out the site for 14 days at no cost. You’re also not limited to the computer screen to use Skybrary; you can even download the app to your tablet or smartphone and access the content on the go.

If a digital library at your kids’ fingertips appeals to you, or you’d love to share the magic of Reading Rainbow you experienced as a kid, give the Skybrary trial a try.

GeekMom received a promotional copy of the DVD and access to Skybrary for review purposes.

Skip the Summer Slide with Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge Powered by Energizer

Image: Scholastic

The summer slide is real. And no, I don’t mean the kind that includes water and a slippery surface. I mean learning lag, which happens during the summertime when kids are out of school. Thankfully, our sponsor Scholastic and the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge is here to help. They’re challenging families like ours to “Power Up & Read”—powered by Energizer.

Teachers report that they end up re-teaching materials to kids during the fall because so much is lost over the summer. And with camps and family vacations—and the sometimes unbearably hot weather like here in North Carolina—it’s not surprising. After a demanding school year, the first thing my son Liam wants to do is not to read.

But we’re finding ways to help him, and you can, too. Picking books for him is the first big challenge. Thankfully, with the help of his teacher last year, we discovered a Minecraft series of novels. While they might not be my first choice of literature, they get his attention. He gets so invested in these books, you can hardly pry him away. Couple that with the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge, and he’s got real motivation to continue reading—and to get rewarded all along the way. Bonus: There’s games he can play, and any time “screen time” is part of the deal, you know his attention is piqued.

Image: Energizer
Image: Energizer

What’s particularly nice is that we can let Liam choose his own books during the summer. With his ASD, the pressure to perform can be really overwhelming. But he doesn’t let it get to him this way. He can read whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

The free program runs from May 4 to September 4, 2015, and like I mentioned before, you can sign up for free on their website.

Even better is the new addition of short stories by some of the biggest names in kids’ writing. Kids can unlock stories by Blue Balliett, Patrik Henry Bass, Varian Johnson, Gordon Korman, Michael Northrop, Maggie Stiefvater and Jackson Pearce, Roland Smith, R.L. Stine, Tui T. Sutherland, Lauren Tarshis, Wendy Wan-Long Shang, and Jude Watson. For a fiction writer as I am, that’s a truly exciting reward! Not to mention, they’ve got a host of exclusive videos featuring kids’ authors, monthly Klutz books sweepstakes, and lots more.

The site is chock-full of great resources, including printouts, guides, and book lists for kids of all ages. And you can get Daily Digest tips and hey, even enter a prize packet for you that includes Scholastic tote bag, water bottle, a copy of Reading Unbound by Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith, a $10 gift certificate to Scholastic Store Online, Energizer® brand batteries, Scholastic books, and more.

Want more? We’ve got more! Check the links below.

Scholastic is a GeekMom sponsor.

Fund ‘Science News’ for Schools

Image By Rebecca Angel

“…we will bridge the connection between everyday learning and the latest scientific discoveries, as reported in our award-winning Science News magazine, and inspire more young people to pursue careers in science.”

I am a huge proponent of science literacy, and a big fan of Science News magazine. As a family, we regularly discuss the amazing discoveries in each issue. As a teacher, I have used the magazine to foster students’ curiosity about their world. The Society for Science and the Public conducted a survey and found out that 95% of teachers polled wanted Science News in their classrooms. Of course they do!

A Kickstarter campaign has begun to bring the fantastic magazine and Teacher’s Guide to classrooms around the country. The Teacher’s Guide will help high school classrooms best utilize the information in the magazine. Jump in to promote science for all.

Join This NASA Summer Online Mentoring Program to Learn About Real Life STEM

Sign up to participate in a free summer online mentoring program with a real NASA employee in the STEM fields.
NASA Girls and Boys. Image used with permission.

For the last three years, the NASA Girls and Boys has been connecting middle school students with NASA employees for a 5-week online summer program in all things STEM. This summer, they are doing it again and the time to apply is now! This incredible opportunity is open to any students in grades 5 through 8 or home school equivalent; the only caveat is that the child must be a U.S. citizen.

Each week touches on a different subject—I bet you can guess what they are!—science, technology, engineering, math, and STEM in real life. The student will have a choice of different projects to explore each week’s topic.

If you’re interested in signing up your child, the deadline is June 28th. Places are limited and will be filled randomly from the list of applicants. All you need for the application is your name, email address, and state of residency.

I had the chance to chat with a very special family who participated last year. Kim Haverkos, a professor in the Education Department at Thomas More College who specializes in STEM Education, applied both of her kids to the program and both were selected during the lottery. This was the only family to have two kids in the program, so they had twice the stories to share with GeekMom about NASA Girls and Boys! Gabe is now going into 9th grade and Abby into 7th, and as you can read below, they learned a lot from the experience—and had fun too.

GeekMom: What did you do during the program?

Gabe: I learned a lot about the calculations that go into launching a spaceship and we also talked about my mentor’s experiences with NASA.

Abby: I Skyped in with my mentor and we did experiments together. Sometimes the video wouldn’t work, but we always got the experiments to work.

Kim: Both kids enjoyed the experiences that we were able to do with the mentors through Skype. I loved the Skype aspect. We were on vacation for both of their first meetings with their mentors and used Skype to our advantage for those meetings. As an educator, I was excited to see the hands on/creative/engineering aspects built into the program. I know there are limitations on the mentors (we can’t have them all the time!), but would love to see the program expand so that the kids could continue to connect with the mentors as they got older.

GeekMom: Can you tell me about your mentor?

Gabe: He was a NASA engineer that lived in South Carolina. His specialty was the pod that releases off the spacecraft after it enters space.

Abby: She lived in Alabama and was getting married soon. She helped figure out ways to fix things or think about things when they went wrong and they got stuck. She sent me a box of things from NASA after the program—I have a poster of the stars on my wall.

Kim: Both mentors were great. They worked hard to tap into the kids’ interests and tie those interests into what the mentors did at work. I appreciated the mentors giving time in the evenings—their precious time!—to engage the upcoming generation of students in STEM.

GeekMom: How did it feel to talk with someone from NASA?

Abby: I liked it. But I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do at first, but it was fun and my mentor knew a lot and had lots of stories to tell.

What was the most memorable thing your mentor told you?

Gabe: The most memorable thing he told me was that if I work hard, I can achieve anything.

Kim: Gabe was so worried that his mentor was going to be someone old and “not cool”—I can’t describe how excited he was to talk to someone young and “cool” who was a part of the NASA team. It relaxed him right away and he looked forward to every connection with him!

GeekMom: Did you like the program? What was your favorite part?

Gabe: I loved the program. It was a lot of fun and I learned so much. My mentor had so much information to share. My favorite part was actually a little after the program was over. My mentor invited me to watch the testing of a rocket ship he helped build. I watched it online and it was very cool.

Abby: I got to see that launch too. It was cool. I liked the program. My favorite part was building the hand from string and straws, but I liked the penny boat thing too.

GeekMom: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Gabe: I want to be a bioengineer or maybe go into the medical field.

Abby: I want to be a brain surgeon.

Thank you to the Haverkos family for taking the time to talk with GeekMom. Good luck to Gabe and Abby with their ambitious career goals! If there are any GeekMom readers who end up applying and getting in, I’d love to hear how your experience went at the end of summer.

Sign up to participate in a free summer online mentoring program with a real NASA employee in the STEM fields.
NASA Girls and Boys. Image used with permission.

Be the Artist: Corita Kent

Corita Kent's used inspiring words in artistic ways to promote love, social justice and peace. Try this using favorite inspiring phrases from fictional characters. Image: Lisa Kay Tate.
Corita Kent used inspiring words in artistic ways to promote love, social justice, and peace. Try this using favorite inspiring phrases from fictional characters. Image: Lisa Kay Tate.

The Artist: Corita Kent

Corita Kent (Sister Mary Corita) was best known for her colorful, bright serigraphs, a type of screen printing, in the 1960s and 1970s with words encouraging the need for peace, love, caring, and compassion, including many works which were politically charged.

Kent incorporated her Rainbow Swash design in items like the 1985 Love postage stamp and a Boston water tower. It was even used on the cover of her book, “Learning by Heart.” Images: (left to right), Public Domain, Wikicommons, and Allworth Press.

Kent was born in Iowa in 1918, and entered the order of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles in 1938. She lived and worked in the community for 30 years, eventually as head of the Art Department, and moved to Boston in 1968 when she left the Order. She lived in Boston until she passed away in 1986.

Kent was often considered in the same realm of influential pop artists like Andy Warhol, particularly for her silk screen work, and did use logos from advertising in some of her works. She would often use logos and symbols or mottoes of American consumerism alongside spiritual texts, and would manipulate the image by ripping or crumbling it before re-photographing it to create a new image for printing.

Two of Kent’s most famous works can be found on everyday items. The water tank in Boston is one of her most famous. There were even some who believed there was a hidden image of Vietnamese Leader Ho Chi Minh as a protest to the Vietnam War, although Kent denied any intentional meaning. The original tank, created in 1971, was demolished, but the image was recreated on a newer tank in the 1990s. Her other design is the simple design for the 1985 “Love” United States postage stamp. Both of these incorporated her “Rainbow Swash.”

No matter what her subject, her symbolism, source, or style, many art experts and art lovers will remember Kent for the optimism in her work. One word often seen in her work was “love,” a beautiful sentiment on both sacred and secular grounds.

She even kept a list of “Art Department Rules” from Immaculate Conception College, which put into play many of her rules for a positive, creative attitude and hard-working ethics. The full list can be seen the book by Kent and Jan Steward, Learning by Heart: Teachings To Free The Creative Spirit.

“Be happy whenever you can manage it,” Kent’s Rule Nine stressed. “Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.”

The Project: Fictional Character, Real Inspiration

Even through Kent’s most famous works were serigraphs, the feel of brush strokes was often part of them, as was in her “rainbow swash” pieces. This project will take advantage of the look of free-spirited brush strokes and give young artists a fun break from crayons and markers.

Use acrylics or other opaque craft paint for look that better resembles the screen print process, but avoid watercolors or other softer, lighter media that won’t stand out as well for this style.

It is always easier to use pencils and markers, but running a brush along a page can be very therapeutic and makes you feel, as our youngest daughter says, “like a real artist.” This experience can be taken even further by squeezing out several paint colors on a paper plate, for a make-shift artist palate.

First, find a quote, letter, or word related to a favorite superhero or character, that is particularly inspiring. There should be a deep, deep well of these from which to choose.

Choose phrases, words, or even letters that represent a favorite quote or inspiring message from a real or fictional source. Erin chose “E” for one painting, because it stands for “Everything.” Images: Lisa Kay Tate.

Use a thick piece of drawing paper or canvas and draw a pattern, symbol, color scheme, or image that represents the source of the quote. If the quote will be written over the image or pattern, let it dry completely before painting on the words.

When you look at Kent’s work, she often let the words flow organically onto the page, and didn’t try to force them onto one tidy line. Don’t try to create a “meme;” paint a picture. If the word is too long for the canvas, continue it on the next line as if it were the most natural thing in the world. One of Kent’s works, “I Love You Very Much,” is a perfect example of this type of word flow.

The word “hero” became a mutual choice to represent Captain America, but both our young artists had different ideas of how to present it. Images: Lisa Kay Tate.

Don’t necessarily go for the obvious images. Both my daughters decided to interpret the word “Hero” for Captain America with the same red, white, and blue color scheme using the same type of background. While my oldest drew the more familiar shield, she added an American flag. My five-year-old also chose a flag (without knowing her sister did, too), but created and entirely different piece.

Same word, same colors, same image… entirely different styles.

Kent might have have liked this, as she listed in Rule Four: “Consider everything an experiment.”

5 Reasons You Should Volunteer for FIRST

FIRST organization logo. Image: FIRST
FIRST organization logo. Image: FIRST

I just finished my rookie year as a FIRST Lego League coach, and I think it’s time I shared some of the things I learned over the last year. About 18 months ago, I started looking for a FIRST Lego League team for my son, Johnny, to join. He received a Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot for Christmas 2013 and was very excited to program with it. His elementary school didn’t have a team, and I wasn’t able to find a team with an opening nearby. Before I knew it, I was organizing a team at his school and volunteering to coach it. I recently left my career as a software engineer due to several major life events, and I decided that it was time to put my computer skills back to good use working with kids.

Did I know what I was getting myself into? Not really. Am I sorry I signed up? Absolutely not!

Secretly, I don’t think I got to play with Lego bricks enough when I was a kid, and I’ve always had my eyes on that super cool robot I would see at local museums. I wanted to play too, and coaching would let me do both!

Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot
Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot. Photo: Maryann Goldman

FIRST Definition

What specifically is FIRST? From the FIRST website:

“Dean Kamen is an inventor, entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for science and technology. His passion and determination to help young people discover the excitement and rewards of science and technology are the cornerstones of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

FIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. Based in Manchester, NH, the 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit public charity designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.”

FIRST Programs

First offers the following programs for kids from kindergarten through high school:

• FIRST Robotics competition (FRC) for Grades 9-12

• FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) for Grades 7-12

• FIRST  Lego  League (FLL) for Grades 4-8

• Junior FIRST Lego League (JFLL) for Grades K-3


But why should you volunteer? Consider these 5 reasons:

  1. The kids need you! Without volunteers, there is no FIRST. Last year, it took 180,000 volunteers to run all the programs and events worldwide, in 80 countries, supporting 400,000 kids learning and competing. That’s coaches, assistant coaches, referees, judges, mentors, set-up crews, clean-up crews, check-in staff, and of course parents just to name a few of the many volunteer roles. As a coach, you are a facilitator. The kids do the work; you provide the environment. You don’t have to be an expert programmer. Maybe you aren’t up to coaching, but could you spare a few hours one afternoon to train and one Saturday a year to judge at a FIRST regional event? I bet you could.
  2. Your child needs you! If you have a child that’s interested in math and robotics, of course you want to nourish that passion. One of the best ways to do that is by getting involved yourself. There are many ways you can help your child’s team. You can raise funds for additional equipment; I don’t know a team that wouldn’t like more EV3 bricks or sensors. You can chaperon at a local or regional event; the coaches can always use extra help keeping up with the kids at big events. You could make a team banner for event parades or buttons for the kids to exchange with other team in the event pit areas. If you have carpentry skills, your team may need help building a competition table. There’s no shortage of things FIRST teams could use help with.
  3. Keep your skills sharp! Being a FIRST Lego League coach really kept my skills sharp. I had to create slides to sell the idea of having a team to the PTA and to advertise team accomplishments. I created spreadsheets with student names and contact information. I taught myself about the EV3 robot by reading and reading some more. I had a crash course in classroom management skills. I developed a real appreciation for what it takes to be a teacher—the lesson plans, the time management, the discipline. Your involvement with FIRST could be a bright spot on a future resume.
  4. Imagine the opportunities! There’s room for growth in all our lives. Whether it’s skills you pick up, people you meet, or challenges you fulfill, there are a lot of opportunities if you volunteer for FIRST programs. I made new friends, strengthened my negotiating skills, and refreshed my programming abilities.
  5. You can make a difference! If even one child on your team or at your event is inspired to achieve more in life than they would have been without your involvement, wouldn’t that be worth it? I have fantasies about all the kids on my FIRST Lego League team going on to a STEM-related field. I know that’s not realistic, but I bet when they get to their first programming class in high school or college, they remember their time on my team. The first time they have to present in front of their peers, they’ll remember all the times they had to explain what they were doing to FIRST judges and referees. They’ll take with them pride in a job well done, and they’ll know what it takes to work well together with other people on a team. Those are all incredibly valuable skills for their future employer.

Need more motivation to volunteer? Watch this video from our successful FIRST Lego League year.

I’ll admit it, there were a few low spots in our year. I cried the day I tried to demo robot line following to the kids and nothing worked right. I was frustrated the day the kids just couldn’t behave, and we didn’t make any progress toward our goals. Sometimes I struggled to guide all the kids in a way meaningful to them. There were days I was sick, days I ran out of prep time, and days when nothing seemed to go right. However, at the end of the day and year, I’d do it all over again! And as a matter of fact, I did volunteer to do it all over again next year.

Microsoft YouthSpark: Learn to Code

DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft
DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft

Kids have the opportunity to learn how to code at an extremely early age these days. I thought I was doing pretty well by starting in the 9th grade back in the ’80s. But now, if you are old enough to use a tablet or computer, you’re old enough to learn to code.

This makes me happy. Not just because it gives kids a skill that is useful if they choose to go into a computer field, but mostly because it teaches kids to think about problems in certain ways early on. To take the problem apart, breaking it into component parts, and affecting the result, step by step. This kind of thinking is important in any field, even if your day job never has you touching a computing device.

Microsoft, with all of their resources, has done plenty to make programming opportunities available for kids of all ages. Here are several of their endeavors.

Kodu. Image: Microsoft
Kodu. Image: Microsoft

Kodu Game Lab
Programming games visually is a lot of fun. We’ve played with Kodu Game Lab quite a bit, and I think it’s the bee’s knees. For visually-oriented kids, it’s perfect for learning programming concepts. Kids (and adults) have almost endless possibilities to design and implement their own computer game. There are also books out there to help you through it, such as GeekDad James Floyd Kelly’s Kodu for Kids. There are websites to download the software, and to learn more about the project.


DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft
DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft

A program for high school girls in technology, DigiGirlz opens up doors for girls to learn about the possibilities in new and emerging fields.

Microsoft Small Basic
Learn to program in Small Basic. For free. There is even a free curriculum you can follow.

YouthSpark Summer Camps for Kids
These free summer camps at your local Microsoft store can keep kids engaged with learning. Sign up before they are all full!

Learn to Code
This Learn to Code page has links to a variety of programming classes and activities, depending on how much time you have to spend. There’s something here for everyone!


Break into Code. Image: Microsoft
Break into Code. Image: Microsoft

Break Into Code
This site is one place to begin your programming adventure. Design games, and more. You can also Break Into Code at your own speed with this Brick Breaker tutorial.


The Imagine Cup. Image: Microsoft
The Imagine Cup. Image: Microsoft

The Imagine Cup
This is a higher level annual programming contest for kids of all ages. Go register! Time is running out! Or get ahead of the game and start planning for next year.

Microsoft Imagine Access
Get free programming software here.

Hour of Code
Microsoft is one of the supporters of Hour of Code, which you can participate in at any time. No need to do it on the same day as everyone else!

Microsoft Virtual Academy
This Academy offers classes taught by professionals on a variety of topics for a variety of levels. Look at their Courses to see complete list.

Many of these programs are part of Microsoft’s YouthSpark initiative, helping youth succeed.

Check these programs out now, or at any time. If you’ve had any experience getting your kids involved with these programs, let us know how it went!

Power Up and Read with he Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge Powered by Energizer

Image: Scholastic

When I was a kid, my favorite part about summer was the fact that I could read as much as I wanted, for however long I wanted. There wasn’t homework, or assigned reading. I could go into the library, grab as many titles as I could carry, and read from dusk until dawn. I’m pretty sure that some days I did. Our sponsors at Scholastic certainly get that kind of kid—but they get other kids, too.

Now I’ve got kids, two of them. One is almost nine, and he’s reading at a near college level. But reading isn’t his thing. He can do it, and do it fast, but unless he sees the benefit, he’s not about to give in to his fiction-obsessed mother. The other one is quickly learning the magic of libraries and stories, but has yet to do any reading on her own. She just turned three, she’s got time.

Image: Energizer
Image: Energizer

Anyway, I’ve been thrilled with the Scholastic and Energizer “Power Up and Read” program for the summer, running from May 4th – September 4th, 2015. With their approach, both kids are reading toward their goals—for our son, a good mix of nonfiction and fiction, and for our daughter books with lots of pictures and easy words. The best part of the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge is that I can download sheets (and certificates) all along the way. And as they log hours, they can earn virtual rewards, enter sweepstakes, and even play games. That’s definitely up their alley.

What’s particularly nice, too, is that you can match your kid with book suggestions. And, there’s a fun component with the INSTANT WIN Games—you and your kids could win a trip to NYC, or lots of lovely books.

Our goals are simple: Make reading fun. Some days that’s harder than others. But with all the tools from Scholastic, I’m convinced it will be a blast for all involved.

Check out their tips and resources below, including a great Harry Potter book party!

Resources from Scholastic Parents:

More about the program:

Scholastic is a GeekMom sponsor.

Bring Back Obsolete Words

influence word choice, bring back obsolete words,
No blood, just vocabulary. (CCO public domain wilhei)

Human experimentation is banned unless the subjects are volunteers who have given informed consent. I believe the more casual research my son recently tried is exempt from those rules.

Let me explain.

My son worked with the grounds crew for a local park system. Being the sort of person who enjoys occupying his mind with more lively endeavors than weed whacking, he found other ways to keep himself amused. It may be helpful to point out that he and his siblings know many more words than they can pronounce. Their vocabularies are considered odd by others. Their dinner table discussions are, at best, eccentric. These tendencies can be almost entirely blamed on one habit: avid reading.

My son used this social liability as the basis for the human experimentation trials he conducted on his unwitting co-workers. The research took all summer. His subjects were not aware that they were part of the study until it was too late. The damage had been done. The results were in. I’m going to tell you how to conduct the same experiment.


You, the experimenter, can bring  nearly extinct words and phrases back into regular usage. (See, you’re providing a service to an endangered vocabulary, while at the same time smiling on the inside.)


Employing an outmoded word or phrase on a daily basis will subtly promote its usefulness and stimulate others to add it to their ordinary lexicon. Basically, you get people to say funny words.


1. You will need subjects. Rely on people you see everyday. Your children, co-workers, neighbors, or friends are excellent victims candidates for your experiment. The more the merrier. If you want to get all science-y, choose a group of people you interact with separately from all other groups. They will form your experimental group, while everyone else in your life will be your control group.

2. You will need a word or phrase you think shouldn’t have fallen out of popular usage. My son chose “dagnabbit,” one of the many oddly amusing words his grandfather used without a hint of irony. (That was a rich well indeed. Other possibilities from my paternal line included “holy mackerel,” “jehoshaphat,” and “tarnation.”)


This is a casual experiment, best done over a long period of time. Begin using your chosen word or phrase regularly, but naturally in your conversation. Pay no obvious heed to the word as it is adopted by others.

If people make a fuss over your use of the word, you may choose to insist it is back in style. Or you may use the opportunity to expand the experiment by promoting those subjects to fellow experimenters. Explain what you are doing in the most noble terms possible, then implore the person use his or her own outdated word or phrase in daily conversation. You’re simply enlarging the Human Experimentation of the Word Kind study, surely to enhance our world as we know it.


See how long it takes to firmly embed your word or phrase in other people’s regular discourse.


Have you gotten subjects to say funny words? Then you’ve proven the hypothesis and done your part to save endangered terms. Another successful Human Experiment of the Word Kind. BTW, my son’s co-workers were all using the word “dagnabbit” within the month. Oh yeah, humans are easy prey for experimentation. I’ve read enough dystopian novels to warn you: don’t take this knowledge too far…

We Day Empowers Youth to Take Action

Photo: Jenny Bristol
Photo: Jenny Bristol

I was recently fortunate enough to attend an event that was part concert, part motivational rally. You can’t buy a ticket to this event. You have to earn it (or be a member of the press).

That event is We Day.

What is We Day? Their website says it best.

Youth coming together to make the world a better place is the global movement of our time—We Day is this movement.

An annual series of stadium-sized events, We Day brings together world-renowned speakers and performers—from Malala Yousafzai and Martin Sheen to Demi Lovato—with tens of thousands of youth to kick-start a year of action through We Act. You can’t buy a ticket to We Day—you earn it by taking on one local and one global action.

More than a one-day event, We Day is connected to the year-long We Act program, which offers educational resources and campaigns to help young people turn the day’s inspiration into sustained action. We Day and We Act are cause inclusive, empowering young people to find their passion and create the change they want to see. By taking action on one local and one global cause, students are equipped with the tools to succeed academically, in the workplace and as active citizens.

Together, We Day and We Act are a blueprint for helping the next generation of global citizens.

Dr. Mae Jemison being interviewed by Hannah Simone. Photo: Jenny Bristol
Dr. Mae Jemison being interviewed by Hannah Simone. Photo: Jenny Bristol

With Microsoft as a major sponsor and founded by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, We Day has evolved over time, starting with a program called Free the Children and turning into a movement with many thousands of participants who work hard to bring good to others. The website is filled with case studies, school group profiles, and plenty of data about participation and how much difference the kids have made.

Seattle’s 2015 We Day event was magnificent. Filled with alternating music groups and motivational speakers, and sprinkled with other people who are popular with today’s youth, the 16,000 students at the event were entertained for hours. Coming from all over the state of Washington, these kids were pumped and happy and engaged with the show. But you didn’t have to be a middle or high school student to get into it. I was quite moved by the whole thing as well.

Laila Ali. Photo: Jenny Bristol
Laila Ali. Photo: Jenny Bristol

The day’s event was broken up into four segments, each a “period” in school: Economic Empowerment, Technological Empowerment, Social Empowerment, and Educational Empowerment. Each section focused on a different aspect of involvement, and the underlying message was to get involved in your community, have faith in yourself and your abilities, and make a difference. A summary of the day was conveniently put into a recap on the We Day website.

I do admit to not knowing who many of the speakers and performers were, but there were a few whom I was excited to hear from, and then some that were pleasant surprises as well.

Apolo Ohno. Photo: Jenny Bristol
Apolo Ohno. Photo: Jenny Bristol

The person I was most looking forward to seeing was Dr. Mae Jemison, who they describe as “the first woman of color in space, physician, scientist, engineer, explorer, and futurist.” She did not disappoint. “We need collective ambition,” she said. We need to work on something together. She imparted much wisdom to the youth present, including messages such as: Keep your confidence. Don’t let others limit you. Our personal stories and perspectives are important. She also said that it is important to have a sense of humor and that daring makes a difference. She encouraged students to do what they knew was right that would move the world forward. Also, she mentioned her close involvement in the 100 Year Starship program, which is working on the future of interstellar travel.

A group of four young Ugandan women spoke about an app that they created to test for sickle cell anemia using just a smart phone. This will make a huge difference in healthcare in their country, and around the world. The four women did all the coding and development for the app themselves, and they did very well in last year’s Microsoft Imagine Cup programming competition as Team AfriGals.

Bars and Melody. Photo: Jenny Bristol
Bars and Melody. Photo: Jenny Bristol

Allstate insurance was another one of the sponsors, and Tom Wilson, their Chairman and CEO, spoke briefly. What he said struck me particularly. “Having diminished expectations is a disease,” he said. I agree with him. My feeling is, if you expect little from yourself, you won’t accomplish very much. If you expect little from your children, your coworkers, and people around you, they won’t be motivated to accomplish their goals, or perhaps even set goals in the first place. Have high expectations. But keep things positive. Make available the tools, skills, and materials needed for those around you to work toward their goals.

Laila Ali spoke. Four-time boxing world champion, TV host, author, fitness and wellness expert, and daughter of Muhammad Ali, she gave an awesome speech. As a kid, she fought for those who were being bullied. Literally. She spoke at length about how her father’s own imperfections inspired her to follow the path she did. She said that if you know who you are and what you stand for, you can do anything.

Showing up briefly, surprise guest, Macklemore. Photo: Jenny Bristol
Showing up briefly, surprise guest, Macklemore. Photo: Jenny Bristol

There were plenty of musicians there as well, including Nashville‘s Lennon & Maisy, indie folk band The Head and the Heart, and British R&B and rapping duo, Bars and Melody.

Near the end of the event, the crowd started going wild. Not on the program but showing up on stage nonetheless was Macklemore, who is apparently a great favorite of the kids present, plus he is a local to Seattle. He didn’t say many words, but the desired effect was achieved. The crowd was thrilled. His only other purpose was to introduce Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Mr. Carroll spoke for a while, and more than just about his team. He was actually pivotal in bringing We Day to Seattle, working closely with the Kielburger brothers to bring their good work from Canada to the United States. Mr. Carroll encouraged the kids present to recognize and celebrate the differences of those around us.

See the (mostly) complete We Day Seattle 2015 lineup here.

Learn more about We Day and the We Act program on their websites. Kids participate in We Act to earn a ticket to the We Day event. If you don’t live in an area with a program, check out the We365 app, which challenges people to get involved with helping others every day. Also, the Me to We program gets people involved in social change projects all over the world.

Note: Microsoft paid for my expenses to attend this event.

Math: All You Need Is Games

Image By Rebecca Angel

I was the kid that had to stay in at recess in second grade. Was I bad? No, I needed extra help in subtraction. Sister Brendan, a very nice old lady (who gave me snacks too) sat patiently with me each day to get my wee brain to learn the tools of taking away in an equation. I was a smart kid, and I could memorize how to do it, but I didn’t understand why and that made me second guess myself and screw up on tests. Eventually I got the concept, but I also learned another lesson: Math isn’t fun.

But it can be! My teen son loves to play board and card games with his young cousin. They both homeschool, so I suggested he come up with a math curriculum for her that incorporated games we already owned to teach the concepts she was supposed to learn in second grade (according to Common Core for a reference). Her parents thought that was great, and when she took a simple test at the end of the year, she aced it. No boring textbooks and worksheets!

Unlike most math curricula that teach one concept at a time, games utilize several skills at once in a fun atmosphere that keeps the challenges from getting overwhelming. Basically, instead of learning to do math on its own, the student is using math to play the game.

Granny Apples is a good example of multiple math skills at once. It is a simple game of tossing wooden apples on the ground and counting the different types to find a total score. However, it involves fractions, addition, subtraction, sets, and is all mental math in a visual setting. There is no writing involved, which is perfect for learning concepts without tripping over the writing/reading challenges. It is a fast game with tactile satisfaction with smooth wooden objects.

Bakugan is perfect for those writing/reading challenges, and so fun that kids will not care. Each sphere is tossed into a ring and pops open to reveal a monster. Each monster has a number printed on it for its “battle score.” But these scores are up to triple digits. The student must keep track of all the digits, keep their columns neat, and continually add and subtract to figure out if they win the battles.

Polyhedron Origami is not a game, but the best way to teach geometry of three dimensional shapes—by building them with paper. It is not difficult, but requires attention to detail, with a satisfying ending of something beautiful with math. Using this method, even the youngest students can make truncated octohedrons, and know what that means!

Phase 10 Card Game is all about sets, patterns, and reasoning.

Could there be a more entertaining way to learn graphing skills than Battleship?

The top half of the Yahtzee sheet is a fun introduction to multiplication. Rolling dice, counting, and writing. Over time, students will count the dice faster and faster based on the visual sets of dots on each die. This is learning sets and geometric reasoning for multiplication skills. Sounds complicated, but in this game, it’s just fun.

Games like Cathedral Chess, TangoesMancala, and Connect 4 are ways to teach spatial reasoning, patterns, shapes, strategy, structure, reasoning, and mental acuity. They range in complexity, but are able to be played by children as young as five in simple formats.

Check out some other posts about math games here and here and here and here.

What games does your family play that teach math concepts?

The Unbelievable Story of Nelly Toll

Photo: Nelly Toll
Photo: Nelly Toll

One of my jobs as a mom is to keep my children fed and clothed. Oh, and safe. It’s sometimes hard for me to imagine how parents in other cultures, and in other time periods, coped with these same responsibilities. Most of us have read The Diary of Anne Frank. It’s easy to feel disconnected from the events of World War II, and the way families were torn apart. It seems like those things happened several lifetimes ago.

Unbelievably, there is a woman named Nelly Toll, who lived through those years, and is still alive to tell her tale. She was only 8 years old when she and her mother were forced to hide from the soldiers who patrolled the streets in her hometown of Lwów, Poland. It was 1943 and not a good time to practice the Jewish faith.

Photo: Nelly Toll
Photo: Nelly Toll

For over a year Nelly and her mother lived in secret, trying to cope with the alternating boredom and fear. As a coping exercise, Nelly’s mother would whisper happy stories to her. Nelly began to paint watercolor pictures of the fantasy stories she would then create in her own mind. Her little black diary became a mixture of tragic stories of losing family members and fanciful tales, intertwined with happy, brightly colored watercolor pictures.

Nelly and her mother survived their ordeal and eventually found themselves in the United States. Nelly’s journal also survived, along with sixty of her watercolor paintings. In her adult years, Nelly became an inspirational teacher, counselor, and art therapist, specializing in helping those who have been through traumatic events.

In 1993, Nelly published her memoir, Behind the Secret Window. It was a mix of her journal entries, stories, and her bright watercolor paintings.

Photo: Puffin Books
Photo: Puffin Books

As a mother I cannot comprehend having to endure such a trial with my 8-year-old child. And it’s even harder to comprehend how an 8 year old could spend a year creating their own happy, optimistic stories and paintings, in the midst of such hatred and angst.

After winning many awards, there is now an Indiegogo campaign to bring Nelly’s book to video, in a documentary film, entitled Imagining A Better World, The Nelly Toll Story. Combining rare archival footage and 3D animation of Nelly’s watercolors (which hang in museums around the world), they plan to tell her story in a cutting edge virtual reality format.

Along with the creation of the documentary, Diane Estelle Vicari, the director, has partnered with the Massillon Museum in Ohio to launch a traveling exhibit of Nelly’s artwork. This means you may actually get the chance to see her paintings in your own neighborhood. Imagine bringing history to life for your kids, by showing them a captivating documentary, then taking them to a local exhibit featuring the artwork they saw in the movie.

Photo: Nelly Toll
Photo: Nelly Toll

If you’d like to help bring this documentary to reality, head over to the Indiegogo campaign page. There are some pretty special rewards for making a tax deductible donation. The sooner these film makers can get their financing, the sooner this amazing story can be told to a much wider audience. And the sooner we can have another quality resource to help us tell our children about the past, while making it come to life for them.

Share the awesome video of this project with your kids, friends and family. You can find it here.

Get Inspired by the 2015 MOONBOTS Challenge!

Image: MOONBOTS. Used with permission.

Once again, GeekMom is proud to be a media partner for this wonderful competition helping to inspire kids to create the most amazing things!

Calling all Explorers, Adventurers, and Dreamers!

We are excited to announce the launch of the 2015 MOONBOTS Challenge, an international competition sponsored by XPRIZE and Google that invites kids to design, create, and program their own lunar rover. Often referred to as the Google Lunar XPRIZE for Kids, this year’s MOONBOTS Challenge is offering an extraordinary Grand Prize: a trip to Japan to meet the actual Google Lunar XPRIZE teams competing for a $30 million prize purse to land a privately funded robot on the moon. Generating excitement about the new Moon race while promoting STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and team building, MOONBOTS aims to inspire and engage the next generation of space explorers, adventurers, and innovators.

Since its inception in 2010, MOONBOTS has challenged thousands of kids from around the world to use their imagination and creativity in a game of skill that’s engaging, collaborative, and educational. Teams of 2-4 members (ages 8-17), and one team captain at least 18-years old, are asked to write a story or create a video essay explaining what inspires them about the Moon. Thirty teams are then selected by a panel of experts to move on to the next stage of the competition, where they are required to design a lunar landscape, as well as build and program a robot.

In addition, MOONBOT teams must come up with a simulated lunar mission and game play for their robots, and then demonstrate their innovation to children and adults in their community. This public outreach builds confidence for team members, teaches audiences about the Moon and the Google Lunar XPRIZE, and demonstrates how STEM education can be fun.

By inspiring and encouraging today’s youth, MOONBOTS 2015 hopes to create the next generation of coders, innovators, space explorers and dreamers. To find out more about the 2015 MOONBOTS Challenge, go to www.moonbots.org. You can also follow the competition on Twitter and Facebook using #moonbots.

50 Ways to Celebrate Earth Day & Every Day

Home  (image: nasa.gov)
Home, lets celebrate her this Earth Day! (image: nasa.gov)

We live on a giant whirling rock of wonders. Our planet offers clouds of migrating Monarch butterflies, fresh strawberries, giant squids, seasons, bumblebees, well, everything. All too often we don’t pay much attention. A little appreciation for Ma Earth isn’t just nice, it’s essential.

Here are some ways we can celebrate Earth Day or any day.

Learn about leaf respiration. (image: Kelly Knox)
Learn about leaf respiration. (image: Kelly Knox)

Science  Investigations

Learn about leaf respiration with these two experiments easy enough for a preschooler.

Make a crystalized Earth using pipe cleaners and borax.

Go outside with tools to investigate like a magnifying glass, sketch book, and binoculars.

Look up to learn more about clouds and find out how you can become cloud collectors.

Let yeast blow up a balloon. Have kids write their names on balloons with a permanent marker. Using a funnel, let them fill each balloon with 1 teaspoon sugar and 1 teaspoon dry yeast. Add a little warm water to each balloon, tie shut, and shake to mix. Then put them outside on a hot sunny day. Check to see how big the balloons have gotten every ten minutes or so. Guess what might happen to balloons that get too big.

Experiment with different ways to grow plants from food scraps.

Predict the weather using pine cones.

Draw the solar system with sidewalk chalk.

Investigate solar power. Make solar prints by arranging objects on photo-sensitive sheets in a SunPrint Paper Kit, then set outside to print like magic. Build a solar-powered cockroach using these Instructables directions. Assemble your own solar cooker and make lunch using only the sun’s rays for heat. You can find all sorts of plans here.


Collect old sneakers for recycling. (image: beart-presets Public Domain)


Recycling Fun

Save worn-out sneakers to donate to a recycling program. Heck, start a Stinky Shoe Drive so your family can work toward a goal of 25 pounds of shoes or more. Here are organizations that recycle them.

Upcycle broken crayons into new shapes and layers. Or collect broken crayons and send them off to Crazy Crayons recycling program.

Collect cardboard boxes and make a day of robot-building with ideas from Welcome to Your Awesome Robot.

Find even bigger boxes to throw a kids BYOB party (bring-your-own-box).

Re-use bottle caps by making a perpetual calendar.

Repurpose empty glass jars by painting them to make vases and artful storage containers.

Make instruments out of recycled materials for a little child’s band.

Use cereal boxes and magazine pages to make blocks.

Set up a swap party with friends and neighbors. It’s a great way to clear your home of toys, movies, games, books, and other items your family is no longer using while getting “new” amusements.


Take a walk. (image:  phaewilk CC by 2.0)
Take a walk. (image: phaewilk CC by 2.0)

Outdoor Fun

Plan a nature scavenger hunt. You might have to make tree rubbings, spot a certain bird, collect rocks, and so on. For toddlers, try a color hunt.

Make your own bubble solution.

Go hiking. Before leaving, decide what each of you will keep your eyes open to see. Your son might decide to look for things that fly. Your daughter might decide to look for what’s blooming. It’s interesting how much more cued all of you will be to your surroundings when really looking.

Play tic-tac-toe on a stump or the front step using just sticks and rocks.

Designate an area of the yard where kids can play right in the dirt. They might want to use it to build mountains and valleys for their toy dinosaurs, cars, or action figures. They might want to dig holes, perhaps looking for archaeological finds using Hands-On Archaeology: Real-Life Activities for Kids as a guide. For a real mess, give them enough water to make a mud pit. Your status as an epic parent will linger (so will the stains).

Spend time outside after dark. Take a full moon walk, hang up a sheet and shine a light on it to make a shadow puppet theater, play flashlight games, and more. Here are 11 delightful ways to play outside in the dark.

Draw from an up-close perspective. (image: Lisa Kay Tate)
Draw from an up-close perspective. (image: Lisa Kay Tate)

Artful Ideas

Learn about Georgia O’Keeffe by making your own drawing of blossoms, up close.

Make homemade sidewalk chalk.

Paint a fingerprint tree.

Use tea and coffee as natural paints.

Even the smallest toddler can put together a nature collage on a sticky board.

Make miniature “stone” carvings.

Twist a paper bag into a tree sculpture.

Mason bee home (image: National Wildlife Federation)
Mason bee home (image: National Wildlife Federation)

Planetary Kindnesses

Make a mason bee home.

Put together an Audubon approved bat shelter kit.

Pick up litter in your neighborhood or wildlife area. It’s safest to do this wearing gloves and using a pick up tool or a reacher. Put each piece of trash in a box or garbage bag, then recycle or throw away when you’re done.

Cook up some birdseed cookies to hang in the trees or make birdseed holders out of oranges.

Make seed bombs.

Make a worm tower or indoor worm farm For more information, check out Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System.

Set up regular unplugged time, say every Sunday or every evening from dinner to bedtime. It spurs your family to get moving and connect with each other.

We share the tastiest way to eat dandelions. (image: Frauenglauben, CC public domain)
We share the tastiest way to eat dandelions. (image: Frauenglauben, CC public domain)

 Nom-able Fun

Start a dandelion-munching tradition with these recipes.

Cook a whole meal outdoors. Everything tastes better whether on the grill, over a fire pit, or over a real campfire. Slice a few inches open on an unpeeled banana, stuff in a dollop of peanut butter and a few chocolate chips, then grill till it becomes a warm pudding in its own banana container. Bake brownies or cake inside hollowed out oranges over a fire pit.  For more ideas check out Campfire CookingScout’s Outdoor Cookbookand Easy Campfire Cooking

Arrange fruits and vegetables pieces into edible flowers. While you’re at it, plant any of the dozens of real flowers that are not only edible but beautiful.

Cut tortillas into earth shapes like leaves, insects, or clouds. Brush with olive oil and bake until crispy, then serve with salsa. Here’s how.

Go to a farmer’s market and pick your next meal based on what you buy.

Put together the classic snack, Ants on a Log. Just spread nut butter on celery stalks and line up raisins for “ants.” We also make Ants on a Picnic, pretty much the same thing except using apple slices instead of celery.

Make burp juice. Show kids how to mix a quarter cup or so of juice concentrate (undiluted) into eight ounces of unsweetened seltzer water. Adjust to taste with more juice or seltzer. Add ice cubes, then drink. It has the same carbonation level as soda without sugar or food coloring. We call it burp juice in our house because quick gulps bring on burps.

Kids drawings become plant markers. (image: L. Weldon)
Kids drawings become plant markers. (image: L. Weldon)

Gardening Projects 

Make plant markers out of spoons using your kids’ drawings.

Grow an indoor meadow. It may be a good place for toy dinosaurs to roam.

Make a fairy garden together, better yet, geek it up with miniature robots or superheroes.

Plant extra seeds and share the plants.

Grow sprouts. It’s a speedy way to harvest a windowsill crop and perfect year-round to add sprouts to salads, sandwiches, and stir-fries.

Let each child plant one “crop” in the garden that is his or hers to tend. Fast-growing plants like sugar snap peas, radishes, and green beans are ideal. Let the kid farmer in charge be the one to check regularly for weeds, watering needs, and harvest times. For more ideas check out Gardening Projects for Kids and for those of you without yards or community garden plots, try Kids’ Container Gardening.

Release Your Inner Robot With ‘The Robot Factory’

The Robot Factory Icon
The Robot Factory Icon. Photo: Tinybop

There’s a new must-have app for the robot enthusiast in your house! Tinybop, Inc. just launched The Robot Factory in the App Store. Designed for kids 4+, it’s the first app in Tinybop’s new educational series Digital Toys. The app provides 50+ parts to spark your child’s robot building imagination, and thousands of robot creations are possible. The app also allows your child to manage their inventory and play with their robots in a fantastical world.

I asked my son Johnny, age 10, to check out the app because he’s my robot enthusiast and First Lego League participant. I knew he would be excited for an opportunity to build robots on his iPad. As soon as I turned him loose with the app, I started hearing a lot of positive chatter from him. “This game really is cool. I like it!” “I think this is a game to express how creative you are.” “Look, Mom, I made him fly. They can fly!” In a short amount of time, he taught himself to use the app and created quite the robot collection.

The Robot Factory Johnny's Robots
Johnny’s Robots. Photo: Maryann Goldman

As you create robots, they are stored in your inventory. You can add new robots to your inventory, take turns playing with different robots, and modify your previously-built robots.

The Robot Factory Robot Inventory
Johnny’s Robot Inventory. Photo: Johnny Goldman

You can test drive your robots too. How do they handle the terrain?

The Robot Factory World
The Robot Factory World. Photo: Johnny Goldman

You know how siblings can be. If one is doing something, the other wants to do it too. I set up my older son Joey, age 12, with The Robot Factory app on his iPhone, and he was determined to outdo his brother with his robot building creativity. The most exciting element for him was the color palettes. He was totally engaged by the color choices and excited to create a butterfly robot for his mom who loves butterflies.

The Robot Factory Joey's Robots
Joey’s Robots. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Actually, the app inspired some teamwork and sharing between my boys as they exchanged robot building tips and excitement over their latest creations.

The Robot Factory Competitive Building
Johnny and Joey competitive building with The Robot Factory. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I even got in on the act by creating my own Girl Power robot.

The Robot Factory Girl Power Robot
Girl Power Robot. Photo: Maryann Goldman

The Robot Factory gets a big thumbs up from everyone in our family and is priced at $2.99. There are no in-app purchases or advertisements to deal with either.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

How To Raise Word Geeks

word nerd, word games, dictionary games,
Dictionary, unplugged. (CC0 Public Domain, pixabay.com)

When I tried to throw our dictionary out, my oldest threw a fit.

It is a very old dictionary. It was owned by my Great Aunt Mildred. The book is huge, with indents along the side for each letter of the alphabet. It’s also not in good shape. Threads hang out of a nearly wrecked spine and the pages are yellowing. Until recently, it sat on our living room trunk, ready to answer all inquiries. I figured we didn’t need it once my kids got older, what with Google attached to our fingertips and all. According to my son, I was wrong. He has more than a sentimental attachment. He knows what this book holds—the power to create word nerds.

Here’s How

First off, we used the dictionary to settle disputes, which happened more often than you might imagine. I’d be happily snuggled on the couch reading aloud to my kids and run across a word new to them. I’d tell them what it meant, but one of those little darlings would invariably question my expertise. Having a writer for a mother may make kids more feisty when it comes to words; I don’t know. They’d rush off to drag the huge volume back to the couch where I’d read the definition aloud. Then we’d wrangle over what the definition really meant. Maybe things are more peaceful at your house.

My kids also used the dictionary for games. Something about having that whale of a book right there in front of them inspired wordplay. Well, that and a few other factors like parental limits on electronic entertainment.

The games my kids played with the dictionary roughly fall into four categories:

Bet You Don’t Know This Word: Sibling one-upmanship is rarely pretty, but I can overlook it when it’s a vocabulary builder. Simply open the dictionary, find a tough word, and challenge a sibling to define it. The kid with a finger on the word has to pronounce it correctly, otherwise the challenge doesn’t count. (This meant they’d run to me with pronunciation questions until they got a better grip on phonetic spelling.) Winner on either side may torture family with the word for the rest of the day. Other family members should sigh in exasperation, but we know the more a word is used, the more likely it is to be understood. Win for vocabulary expansion!

Guess the Right Definition: There are better ways to play this, but our made-up version is easiest. Find an esoteric or outdated word to use as a challenge. On the same page, find another word with an entirely different (hopefully strange) definition. Or find two other words to make it harder. Read aloud the challenge word, then mix up the different potential definitions as they’re read aloud. Again, winner may torture the family with the word for the rest of the day.

Three-Word Challenge: Pick three words at random and challenge your kids to make up a story or song or nonsense rhyme on the spot using those words. Yes, your turn is next using three words they pick. This works nicely in the car. Maybe you need a pocket dictionary in the glove compartment.

Blackbird: This is my favorite. Think of a question (one that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no) and ask it aloud, like “Why is my hair curly?” or “Should we get a pet hamster?” Then, open the dictionary at random and, without looking, put a finger on the page. Look at the word under your finger and read aloud its definitions. It may take some stretching (a nice use of reasoning powers) to make it fit as an answer, but it usually works. For example, my curly-haired child placed a finger on the word “law.” One of the definitions is “binding force or effect” and another is “regularity in natural occurrences.” That led to a nice discussion about genetics and hair. The hamster question led to the word “fury,” which takes little effort to decode, especially when one definition is “angry or spiteful woman.” That would be me if faced with one more pet in this house.

Additional Tactics

  • Leave a dictionary out in your house. Let your kids see you use it regularly. Help them use it and display interest as you do. For game purposes, there’s something more alluring about a print copy than an online dictionary.
  • Tsk-tsk a little when they look up “bad” words (otherwise it’s no fun for them).
  • Don’t impose word games. Enthusiasm is mortally wounded when learning is mandatory.
  • Act as if it’s completely normal when your nine-year-old describes a problem as a predicamentimpasse, paradox, or quandary.

If you choose to allow a dictionary to assume this power in your family, I have one warning. Dictionary silliness will lead to language savvy. If your kids use a lot of obscure words in their everyday discourse, they’ll need a droll sense of humor, the better to handle their flummoxed peers.

Kids Talk Science

Image By Rebecca Angel

I am not a scientist, but I consider myself science literate. I understand how studies are conducted and I have a basic knowledge of statistics. But more importantly, I actively keep up with science articles in everyday magazines, compare them to each other, and ask questions of people I know in the science fields. Being science literate means I care about how science affects my life. I also thinks it’s pretty cool.

My children are surrounded by scientists in the family: Their father, aunt, and grandfather all have PhDs in molecular biology, and their great-aunt is currently working on her doctorate in nursing. Granted, the science topics veer towards biology more than astrophysics, but as scientists, they all enjoy talking about any new discoveries.

I started college as a psychology major, not because it was better than “undeclared” but because I thought it was interesting. I ended up in music, but I still enjoy hearing about new studies in that social science. All this means is that my children consider science a part of life, not just a subject in school.

I decided to take this science literacy skill into our homeschooling group. For six weeks, I led a class of kids from ages six to fourteen on a discovery of what science literacy means. Their homework was to find a science article from a lay-person’s source, and then try to find the original scientific article referenced. This was very tough because real science journals are often expensive for libraries to carry, are not easily accessed on the web unless you are part of a scientific community, and are generally not for sale in stores. Yet, many were at least able to find the original title and abstract for their chosen article. The most amusing part of class was when the children would read the lay person title like: Alzheimer’s Linked to Lack of Zzzz and then the scientific study title, Rapid appearance and local toxicity of amyloid-beta plaques in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. They came to appreciate good science writing for non-scientists.

That first class, I told the kids to choose any topic, as long as it was a current scientific study. I’m running a science literacy class again this spring and decided to narrow down the topic to health and nutrition. This time around I’ve also allotted more time for discussion. I hadn’t counted on how intense the kids’ options would be on the various studies presented in the first class. I had to cut them off just to make sure everyone had a chance to present.

What about at your home? Don’t have a couple of PhDs to pass the potatoes and ask a question about the validity of the latest diet craze? Start reading good science articles. Science News is by far the most accessible, varied, and current science publication. Regardless of your educational background, you will be able to understand and get a quick look at the most recent and groundbreaking work in a variety of scientific fields. Read one of the shorter articles aloud at dinner and start a conversation about possible life on the moon of another planet, how robots are learning like babies, or if obesity is linked to too many hours playing video games.

Here’s a short checklist for evaluating science in the news:
-Who funded the study?
-How broad was the sample (people of different ages? genders?)
-How many people?
-Was it a blind study? Double blind?
-Did the reporter tell you about other similar studies to compare?
-Did other scientists review and comment on this study?

Science shapes our culture, politics, and personal health. Read about it, talk about it, become more science literate with your kids!

The 5 Reasons I’m Sticking Up For Facebook

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

Facebook has been accessible to the masses for less than ten years. Some love it, some hate it. I’ve had friends log off for good, saying it was taking too much of their time. GeekMom Patricia shared her feelings about Facebook a little over a year ago. A close friend texted me the words ‘Facebook is ugly’ recently, when a very personal event happened in her family and she was afraid more people would find out once it hit Facebook.

I get it. It truly is a place where information can travel fast. It’s a place where incorrect information can live forever. It’s a place full of tempting links full of awful viruses. It’s a place where bullies can run wild and have no consequences for their actions.

But that’s not all Facebook can be. Just like the internet in general, the good stuff is there, along with the bad stuff. It’s our job to make the choices.

I began thinking more about the impact Facebook has on my life after reading a post from Wired.com, called “The Weird Way That Facebook and Instagram are Making Us Happier”, by James Wallman. The author points out that in the past people generally ‘kept up with the Jone’s’ by acquiring things. In recent years the push has changed from amassing the right products to having the best experiences. As people tweet, Instagram, and share on Facebook their front row seats at a prime concert, or their perfect feet-in-the-sand picture from the tropics, the desire to experience their adventure can be powerful.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

Through all of the criticisms I hear, I remain loyal. I have several reasons for my loyalty. In fact, here are the top 5 reasons I don’t have negative issues with Facebook:

1) Let’s start with one of the top reasons I am addicted to my Facebook feed—my 15 nieces and nephews, who live all over the country. Before Facebook I had to rely on rare phone calls, or a few prints in the mail to know what my distant family was doing. Since I’ve been on Facebook, I know when my niece wins yet another horse show. I know that my nephew broke his arm and picked a bright orange cast. I get to see my niece’s wide grin as she hugs the man who just proposed to her (a picture I got to see just moments after the question was popped, in another state!) I am in the loop. With very little effort on my sibling’s part, I know what their kids are up to (and how fast they are growing). I get to feel close to a lot of children who I care very deeply about but rarely get to see. This is reason enough for me to have my Facebook account.

Photo: Judy Berna

2) I know how to read other people’s posts with perspective. I know I’m not the only one who rarely posts the terrible things that happen in our family. For one thing, it’s private, which is a huge deal when you have teens in the household, and generally helpful when it comes to long term marriages. For another, who wants to read a bunch of whining? Most of us would stop following those posts immediately.

I get inspired by happy posts from those around me. It makes my day to see another smiling baby, growing in some faraway place, a place I may not see for many more years. At this point I’ve watched several of my friends’ babies go from announcement of conception, to first day of kindergarten pictures. In my pre-Facebook world, I would have been lucky to have a couple of 4×6 prints for my fridge. Once I’m lucky enough to be with those people again there will be more time for fun, and less time spent filling each other in on the past few years. We’re already caught up, we’re Facebook friends.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

3) I pick my friends strategically. In the beginning I vowed not to accept any friend request unless I knew the person well enough to pick up the phone if they called. I was not out for quantity. I’ve relaxed that rule just a bit, as I’ve added some new amputee friends from around the country, but I’m still pretty tight with my friend requests.

The side effect of this decision is that the people who are my friends on Facebook are people I respect. I don’t allow negativity or harsh political rants on my feed. If a friend starts that pattern, they are immediately un-followed. The majority of my friends don’t post pictures of their vacation so they can brag. They post because they are just so thrilled to finally have a chance for a break, and want to share their joy. Or they’ve seen a really interesting place and want to share it with the rest of us (like virtual travel!). My friends aren’t worried about impressing me, or their other Facebook friends. We share with each other online to keep in touch, not to keep score.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Wink Darling

The friends I have in my feed on a daily basis tend to post about a variety of things that interest me. I have some who are knee deep in raising little ones. They post precious pictures, but also the latest articles about child development and what issues are facing families these days. I have many amputee related posts in my feed – 5K races completed, new sockets broken in, and small personal victories I like to share in. I find many interesting stories (and writing ideas) from the links my Facebook friends post. From the yoga loving friend I get links to informative articles about healthy living. From my mountain neighbors I get articles related to quality trails or wildlife management. Several of my husband’s archaeologist friends post links to fascinating discoveries. I have older friends, and younger friends, which offers a wide perspective. I am friends with a few X Games athletes and Paralympic athletes I respect, which keeps me pushing forward when my old body wants to slow down.

I am seeking a term for the equivalent of ‘well read’, but related to Facebook. Most days, if I read the intelligent versions of the links in my Facebook feed, I feel pretty caught up on the latest news and events, locally and around the world. It’s a quick way to feel in the ‘world loop’.

4) I’ve found just too many long lost friends, that I once again cherish, to ever write off the value of Facebook. In recent years my husband and I have reconnected with many friends we’d lost over the years, and have loved catching up on their lives and seeing their children in online albums. Several of these friends we’ve met up with in person again, thankful for the chance to keep quality people in our lives.

Photo: Amy Smith, used with permission
Photo: Amy Smith, used with permission
Photo: Judy Berna

5) One word – support. There are so many ways that Facebook is a beacon of hope. If it wasn’t for Facebook I would have never known that my childhood friend’s dad had begun to slip into dementia last fall, and quietly passed away just after the new year. She has a large family, and young children, and she never would have had time for dozens of phone calls or hand typed emails. One post on Facebook, and we all knew the situation, and what we could do to help.

My friend who is a new mom and a military wife can be reminded every day, by those of us who love her, that ‘this too shall pass’. As a group, we can tell her that some day soon that baby WILL sleep. And some day soon he will have his first belly laugh and she will find tears streaming down her face from pure enchantment. I would have devoured those kinds of daily messages on my computer screen when I was raising our four little ones, far away from extended family.

On our local town’s page everyone shares pictures of their lost dog, or recently released fire ban updates. My son wanted an inexpensive used mini fridge for his college dorm. Our local area’s buy/sell page found him one within 24 hours. When there was a carjacking suspect in our area, I found out through a Facebook feed update and was able to walk my son home from the bus stop. One comment on Facebook last fall, related to the fact our son was returning from Afghanistan, led to a local Facebook uprising, which led to a huge welcome home party.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

I choose how I interact with Facebook, and I choose to see the good. I choose to make smart choices with friend requests, and be brave enough to push the delete button when necessary.

I do believe the author of the Wired Magazine article. I think there is a strong leaning toward embracing experiences vs. material items lately. I think it’s a good thing. Even if a person can’t afford the latest concert tickets, motivating someone to look around and find some local activity to do, offline, is a move in the right direction.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

I know it works for me. After I’ve checked in on all those long distance kids I love, then bookmarked the interesting links I want to explore later, I like grabbing the dog’s leash and being motivated by a friend’s picture, posted after her walk along a local meadow. No need to be jealous of her experience. I see it as a reminder that there’s a big world out there. Someone needs to explore it… then share it on Facebook.

Where Are All of the Circus Animals Going?

Photo: Wild Animal Sanctuary
Photo: Wild Animal Sanctuary

It’s not a secret that there has been a movement in recent days to make circuses animal free. Just a few weeks ago Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey announced they will be phasing elephants out of their shows. All of their acts will be elephant-free by 2018.

Elephants aren’t the only animals being released by circus acts around the world. Wild cats, lions and tigers, are being let go at a rapid pace too. All of these animals need somewhere to go. They need a retirement home that looks and feels nothing like the cages they’ve been raised in.

That’s where a refuge in Colorado is stepping in. The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, will be expanding their enrollment very soon, to include 33 recently released circus lions. Twenty-four are coming from Peru, nine will be arriving from Columbia. In early April, a Boeing 767 cargo jet will arrive at Denver International Airport, and thirty-three lions will begin their new life.

These aren’t the first rescue animals to arrive in Keenesburg. In 2011, twenty-five lions moved to Colorado, from a circus in Bolivia. The staff at the sanctuary will treat the new lions much like the ones who have thrived since their arrival in 2011. Good nutrition and dental care are a first priority. Creating large, welcoming habitats is another.

The sanctuary is dedicating 100 acres and 10 large-acre habitats to the new additions. Updated habitats, added to the cost of food and veterinary care, means it’s going to cost a lot to give these new lions a home. The sanctuary is in the process of raising $75,000 to help offset those costs.

Aside from their new rescue animals, The Wild Animal Sanctuary plays a huge part in rehabilitating many kinds of wild animals. They occupy a 720 acre refuge, caring for more than 350 lions, tigers, bears, wolves, and other large carnivores. Their 7,000 square foot sanctuary building serves as a debriefing area for new animals. Many animals who were caged their entire lives need time to get used to large spaces. Each animal is given time to acclimate, before being turned out to the large outdoor areas they will eventually call home.

Photo: Wild Animal Sanctuary
Photo: Wild Animal Sanctuary

The Sanctuary building is also used for a lot of public education. Visitors can see the animals who are in transition, being treated for malnutrition, or just general bad health, and see engaging videos about protecting our wildlife.

Photo: Wild Animal Sanctuary
Photo: Wild Animal Sanctuary

Then comes the best part. At the Wild Animal Sanctuary you can walk on the “Mile into the Wild” walkway. A raised path stretches over 5,100 feet over the outdoor habitats and allows visitors to see the animals run free below them. This setup is not an accident. Once the folks at the sanctuary discovered that large carnivores do not consider air or sky to be their territory, they decided they’d try to put visitors up on elevated walkways, where they are not considered a threat. The typical zoo behaviors, like pacing, never developed, and the animals went on with their lives, ignoring the people in the sky. As they raised more money, they opened more habitats and built more walkways.

Photo: Wild Animal Sanctuary
Photo: Wild Animal Sanctuary

With the aggressive increase in their wildlife population next month, I’d love to challenge our GeekMom readers to reach out and help. If you are an animal loving family, and would love to be a part of the movement that rescues wild animals from the circus life, this is your chance. If you have school-aged children, consider ‘adopting’ this project, and sending the sanctuary a bit of money.

Photo: Wild Animal Sanctuary
Photo: Wild Animal Sanctuary

Then, if you live anywhere near Colorado, GO SEE this amazing place. Walk through their educational displays, then head outside and catch a glimpse of hundreds of wild animals in natural habitats. If you don’t live in or near Colorado, get out the date book and plan a family summer trip here. The refuge sits just east of Denver. There are lots of fun things to do in Colorado, but knowing that they get to tour this exciting animal park will make your kids twice as eager to start their summer break and head toward the Rockies. Being able to visit a location where they have contributed their own money is a great way to instill the joy of giving in our kids.

Here is the link to where you can donate. Read this page, about the history of the sanctuary, if you need more motivation. Highlighted words in this post will direct you to other pages of interest. Denver’s magazine, 5280, published this great article about the cause.

Since it’s not very safe to hug a lion today, why not do the next best thing and send a little money to save one?