A Girl and The “Apple Demon” – My First MacBook Pro

The Apple Demon. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
The Apple Demon. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

This is a story about a girl name Dakster and her adventure into Apple Land.

Dakster loved Windows computers more than anything. They’re shiny. They’re easy to use. And if they break, her degree in Computer Engineering and day job as a Network Administrator gave her the skills to either fix it or turn it into a toaster.

She can take a computer apart, put it back together, and get it working again quicker than most people can take apart a pen and put it back in working condition. She’s tamed servers, copiers, laptops, and desktop PCs with her mad computer skills that she’s obtained over her 15 years of working with Windows computers. Continue reading A Girl and The “Apple Demon” – My First MacBook Pro

Change Movie Quotes With Science—The best tweets of #ScienceAMovieQuote

A little taste of #ScienceAMovieQuote. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
A little taste of #ScienceAMovieQuote. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

Sometimes the trending Twitter hashtags make lose my faith in humanity, and sometimes they make very happy. The latter happened last night when I found #ScienceAMovieQuote trending. That’s people turning famous movie quotes into geekier alternatives by replacing one word (or a few) with something more scientific.

Here’s my favorites thus far! (And yes, I included my own somewhere in there, because I’m cocky like that.)

GeekMom Is On Instagram!

Follow us on Instagram @GeekMomBlog. Logo courtesy of Instagram.
Follow us on Instagram. Logo courtesy of Instagram.

GeekMom has joined Instagram as @GeekMomBlog! Follow us to see the products we’re loving right now, events we’re attending, great DIYs, and some old favorites from our archives.

We’ll be kicking things off with some back-to-school ideas and photos from PAX Prime this weekend. We’ll also be at DragonCon!

Tag your geeky photos #geekmomblog so we can see your geeky adventures, too.

Create Your Own SumoBots Battle

Sumobot Teamwork
SumoBot teamwork. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

There was a lot of fanfare in our house earlier this summer when BattleBots returned to TV. In our home, watching the show turned into a family event, with friendly bets on which bots would continue on in the competition. If you walked by our house during an episode, I’m sure you would have wondered what all the shouting and commotion was about. If you missed out on the excitement, you can read weekly recaps on GeekDad. And if you want to create your own competition, read on to get the scoop on how you can use Lego Mindstorms robotics to create your own robot battles.

Last year, after our FIRST Lego League (FLL) competition season came to an end in November, our team wanted to move forward with more robotics fun and activities. Engaging in a SumoBot competition seemed like a great idea, and we set out to learn all things Sumo.

If you’re not familiar, the art of robot Sumo is modeled after the sport of Sumo. You put two robots, created following a given specification, into a round ring, and the robots try to push each other out. The first robot out loses. The robots can vary in size from fitting inside a 7-by-7-inch cube to much bigger. There may be weight restrictions along with the number of sensors and motors that may be used. The ring, or arena, can vary in size but is often 3- or 4-feet wide and either white with a black outer 2-inch ring or black with a white outer 2-inch ring. The robots will often have tools mounted on them to push or move the other robot out of the ring.

Our team consulted Phil Malone’s SuGo website for guidance and ended up participating in a contest following a set of rules outlined by Appalachian State at the NC Science Festival. Don’t get hung up on the rules; just make sure everyone participating is following the same ones.

So what do you need to get started? Well, you need at least two kids or competitors, two robots, an arena, and some agreed-upon rules. Just make sure to nail down the rules and equipment you are going to use before proceeding.

Sumobot Arena Construction
SumoBot arena construction. Photos: Maryann Goldman.

You can either buy a SumoBot ring or make your own. I was crazy lucky and noticed a round piece of wood sitting on the side of the road. It had obviously fallen off a truck, and it was a little smashed, but it still looked usable and was small enough for me to get in my minivan on my own. My luck continued when I gave my guy the specifications for the ring, and a short time later, I had an awesome SumoBot arena. He trimmed the wood, sanded the platform, and painted it. You don’t have to have woodworking skills or lots of money to spend, though. The ring does not have to be raised off the ground. You could make a ring out of poster board or cardboard, some duct tape, and paint.

Sumobot Designs
SumoBot designs. Photos: Maryann Goldman.

You need to come up with a design for your robot. Do you want your robot to be lightweight, small, and dash around the ring and the opponent quickly? Or, maybe you want your robot to be as large and heavy as possible and attempt to overpower the opponent. Perhaps something in the middle is appropriate. Our team started out with a simple SumoBot and then made modifications. You could use the same robot from your FLL competition. As long as it follows the weight, size, and sensor/motor rules, let your imagination and personal experience guide you. Some of the kids on our team really wanted to test a robot with tracks against a robot with wheels to see which would perform better. The kids followed the TRACK3r building instructions, made a few modifications such as mounting the ultrasonic sensor on the front, and then tested against our simple SumoBot. Our results showed that wheels work better than tracks. TRACK3r kept trying to climb his opponent instead of push him out of the ring.

Sumobots Under Construction
SumoBots under construction. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Once you have a SumoBot to test out, you’ll need to write a program to run him. Phil Malone’s website has a wonderfully sophisticated program that you can review, dissect, and run to get started. I found it to be of immense help to me, although it was a little too complicated for my kids. I encouraged them to study Phil’s program and to then create their own program keeping in mind several factors:

  1. The robot has to stay moving at all times once the match starts.
  2. The robot has to stay inside the ring.
  3. The robot should try to find and push the opponent out of the ring.
SumoBot Competition
SumoBot competition. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Our program ended up being a stripped down version of Phil’s program. Move out of the starting box to the left or right, as indicated by the judge. We used two programs to accomplish this; one had a hard-coded left turn, and the other had a hard-coded right turn. The rest of the programs were identical. Start moving forward and stay moving forward until you see the arena boundary (a white line, in our case) or the opponent. If you encounter the white line, back up, turn, and resume moving forward. If you encounter the opponent, speed up and push forward, trying to knock your opponent out. You will also need to keep an eye out for the white line while pushing. It doesn’t sound terribly complicated, but it is. A loop along with an impressive switch (case) statement are required.

SumoEyes from Mindsensors. Photo: Mindsensors.
SumoEyes from MindSensors. Photo: MindSensors.

Your program will need to use the infrared, ultrasonic, or SumoEyes sensor to detect the opponent. Although not genuine Lego, the SumoEyes sensor is a lot of fun to use. It will allow your robot to not only see the opponent when he’s directly in front of you, but also when he’s to the right or left. We were not able to compete with SumoEyes, but we sure did have a lot of fun playing around with the SumoEyes sensor from MindSensors within our own team.

Our FLL team found preparing and competing with SumoBots to be very exciting. The kids really got into the competition of trying to decide on the best SumoBot design. They loved cheering for their SumoBot to win. The whole experience was a pleasant break from the more vigorous FLL season.

Check out this video of our SumoBot in action at the competition this year! 1. 2. 3. Sumo!

Summer Science Fun: Shooting Star Party

Photo Courtesy © Grand Canyon National Park, licensed by CC BY 2.0

Summer nights are more than ideal for heading outside to stargaze. Every summer, the night sky lights up with the Perseids meteor shower, a perfect opportunity to watch the stars. This year promises one of the best shows yet, with the peak night predicted for August 13 paired with a new moon. Continue reading Summer Science Fun: Shooting Star Party

10 Geeky Butterfly Facts to Share With Your Kids

Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly bush. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly bush. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Summer vacation provides a fantastic opportunity to spend some time with your kids learning about nature. I know it’s hot out there in August, and that it may take some extra motivation for you and your kids to leave the comfort of air conditioning and go outside, but I promise it will be worth it. Science is all around us, and I encourage you to take a few minutes to enjoy it with your kids.

I’m particularly interested in insects, and one of the creatures that fascinates me personally, as well as my kids, is butterflies. We see them in our yard. We see them at local parks. We see them at various museum butterfly houses. They are everywhere, and there’s something magical about watching a butterfly flutter past.

Sulpher butterfly. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Sulphur butterfly. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Without stopping and telling your kids that you’re going to flat out teach them something, I suggest that you casually interject a few interesting facts into your conversation. Seize the opportunity of your child starting to chase a butterfly across the yard. Take a moment to engage your child as they stop to watch a butterfly move from flower to flower.

Sometimes I stand out in the humid and hot North Carolina sun just to watch butterflies and take pictures. I’ve been known to snap 100 pictures in 15 minutes hoping to capture just the perfect one. You know. The one where the wings are all in focus. The one where the sun perfectly illuminates the wings. The one where the colors aren’t washed out. The one where the butterfly is perfectly perched on a beautiful flower. It’s an endless passion for me, and it’s one my kids are quick to pick up on. When your child sees you being passionate about something, they are bound to follow suit.

Eastern tiger swallowtail on coneflower. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Eastern tiger swallowtail on coneflower. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

So, what geeky butterfly facts can you share with your child? There are so many to choose from!

Fact 1 – Did you know that the straw-shaped tube that a butterfly uses to suck nectar from flowers is called a proboscis? There are a lot of interesting butterfly anatomy vocabulary words that you can introduce your child to.
Fact 2 – Is that butterfly really a butterfly, or is it a moth? There’s an easy method to tell a butterfly from a moth. Take a close-up look at the antennae. Butterfly antennae are long and slender with a bump on the end. Moth antennae are feathered and much wider.
Fact 3 – Do you know how long butterflies live? Some live as short as a week while Monarchs can live up to 9 months. The average lifespan is about a month.
Fact 4 – Why do you sometimes see butterflies down in the mud instead of on a pretty flower? They are looking for minerals and sodium. It’s a process called mud-puddling. Males are more likely to exhibit this behavior than females.
Fact 5 – The inevitable question…where do butterflies come from? It’s a great time to introduce the butterfly life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly.
Fact 6 – Did you know that there are a lot of artists out there that take the wings of naturally expired butterflies and turn them into jewelry and other crafts? I own a pendant, bracelet, and pair of earrings, and they always make for great conversation pieces when I wear them. Butterflies also make for interesting photo art. Sometimes you can take an ordinary butterfly picture and make it extraordinary.

Butterfly wings mandala. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly wings mandala. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly crystal ball. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly crystal ball. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman

Fact 7 – How many types of butterflies are there? According to the North American Butterfly Association, “There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. About 725 species have occurred in North American north of Mexico, with about 575 of these occurring regularly in the lower 48 states of the United States, and with about 275 species occurring regularly in Canada. Roughly 2000 species are found in Mexico.” Each area of the country and part of the world has its own butterfly varieties. This is similar to the differences you would see in birds as you travel. So if you’re familiar with the butterfly species that live in your own backyard, when you travel, it can be fascinating to study the different varieties you see along the way.
Fact 8 – Did you know that if you see a butterfly with a broken wing that’s having trouble flying that you might be able to assist? Yep, some people will follow a set of instructions to repair a butterfly wing. I’ve never tried this, but now that I know, I might be tempted. Obviously, this is something kids shouldn’t attempt on their own, but if you happen upon a dead butterfly, I suggest encouraging your kids to treat it as a specimen and study it.
Fact 9 – Where do butterflies sleep at night? Well, they typically sleep under leaves. This protects them from rain that might fall at night as well as from becoming bird food in the early morning.
Fact 10 – Talking about butterflies is a great way to introduce the topics of conservation and migration. The 3-D movie Flight of the Butterflies talks about the plight of Monarchs and their migratory path. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

Monarch on zinnia. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Monarch on zinnia. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Not quite ready to get out in the heat to enjoy the butterflies? Look for a butterfly house near you! Conveniently, there is a website that lists butterfly houses by state. You might be surprised to find one closer than you expect. We often visit our favorite butterfly house, the Magic Wings Butterfly House at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina. We’ve had many fascinating butterfly encounters there including having butterflies land on our outstretched finger. If you do plan a butterfly house visit, check to see if they have a butterfly release time. Kids love that!

Johnny fascinated with a butterfly at the Magic Wings Butterfly House butterfly release. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Johnny fascinated with a butterfly at the Magic Wings Butterfly House butterfly release. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I hope you enjoy this factual and visual tour of the butterflies in my yard and hometown. Happy butterfly watching!

Bye bye. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Bye bye. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Deep Water Interests

Blue Abyss
Image: Blue Abyss Facebook page

As a child we would go swimming at our local public pool. It’s an indoor pool in my hometown of Walsall, and was the biggest pool I had ever seen. For some reason there were plastic windows part way down underneath the water. I would swim down to see them, and my shadow looming over them would make it appear as though some creature of the deep was passing by. It was tranquil underneath that water, and I loved being there.

I have always had an obsession with water, a love of marine life, a borderline obsession with sharks, and so I read with interest this week that the University of Essex in England, in conjunction with Blue Abyss, is planning the construction of the world’s deepest swimming pool to conduct research into spaceflight and human endurance. At 164 ft, it would be deeper than NASA’s training pool in Houston, by 124 feet, and they say things are bigger in Texas? Currently the deepest pool is in Montegretto Terme, Italy, but it too would be in the shadows of this planned pool, by 23 feet.

109245The project is being crowdfunded, and personally I’m tempted by the Hollywood star at the bottom of the 50m shaft. You can keep track of the project and its crowdfunding efforts on their Facebook page.

So, beyond my obsession with the water, why the interest in this project?

One of my favorite quotes from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing sums up how I feel about most projects of this nature, why I support them, and why I like my tax dollars to go to them when possible.

“Because it’s next. Because we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.” – Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe) on NASA’s trip to Mars.

Many people think that we should be exploring our oceans more. That there is much of our own world still left to discover, let alone that beyond the stars. For me, this project seems to have it all. The creation of an environment that would help us study our own bodies, and find better ways of moving in deep space and in deep water. A deep water pool may not be what’s next in terms of exploration, but it’s certainly a step towards further exploration, whether we choose to sink to new depths or soar to new heights.

Why Is Matisse’s Brilliant Yellow Fading?

Images illustrate a virtual reconstruction (left) and the actual condition (right) of Le Bonheur de Vivre/The Joy of Life by Henri Matisse, 1905 – 06, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, U.S. Photo courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

When we were kids, we visited art museums to examine all of the big, bright paintings with wide-eyed wonder. Today, some of those paintings aren’t as bright as they used to be.

In a new study, an international team of scientists have discovered exactly why the bright yellow pigment favored a century ago is turning to a drab beige.

It turns out that the original chemical compound, cadmium sulphide, which is a highly water-insoluble and bright yellow, is subject to a light-induced oxidation process that turns it into a colorless, water-soluble cadmium sulphate. Yikes! This is not a good thing, since it was favored by so many of the Impressionist, post-Impressionist, and early modernist masters. Henri Matisse is just one of the many artists who used it in their works—works that are fading fast.

“The results of this study reveal how critical it is to understand not only the chemistry of the discolored paint, but also the chemistry used to prepare the paints that were available to the turn of the 20th-century’s most enduring artists,” said Winterthur Museum‘s Senior Scientist Jennifer Mass, Ph.D. “Our study points the way toward several important areas requiring further investigation, among the most critical of which is developing a protocol for identifying the ‘at risk’ paintings that are in their earliest stages of degradation, even before it is visible to the naked eye, so that such works can be placed in the proper display environments that will prevent their degradation from worsening.”

Mass led the international team, who used X-ray diffraction, X-ray absorption spectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence analysis, and infrared microscopy to study the fading pieces at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. The study specifically looked at Matisse’s The Joy of Life, although the discoveries could also apply to other Matisse works, as well as those by James Ensor and Vincent Van Gogh.

“As a chemist, I find it striking that in paintings of different artists and different geographical origins that (presumably) were conserved for circa 100 years in various museum conditions, very similar chemical transformations are taking place,” said Koen Janssens, chemistry professor at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “This will allow us to predict with higher confidence what may be happening to these works of art in the coming decades.”

The ESRF said that museum scientists over the past decade have estimated that “this disfiguring phenomenon is affecting billions of dollars of our global cultural heritage.” The findings can help them identify and help preserve “at risk” paintings, as well as learn how to properly digitally restore damaged paintings and create a computer-generated image that reveals the artists’ original intent.

“When we combine our findings on the works of Henri Matisse with the studies carried out on works by Vincent Van Gogh and James Ensor, the understanding of their degradation gives us a road map to guide us in the preservation of these works,” Mass said. “It also provides us with the information needed to digitally restore the damaged paintings, creating a computer-generated image that reveals the artists’ original intent.”

The study is featured in an article, “2D X-ray and FTIR micro-analysis of the degradation of cadmium yellow pigment in paintings of Henri Matisse,” in the June 2015 issue of Applied Physics A.

How Does Google’s Cardboard Hold Up?

google cardboard
The Google Expeditions app turns a smart phone and a little cardboard view kit into a fun virtual reality experience for as little as $20. Image: Rick Tate

When Google first announced their Google Cardboard VR (virtual reality) devices as an inexpensive means of obtaining the VR effect, my husband was thrilled at the prospect.

As a history and world geography teacher, he had been following the teaching potential—both at home and in the classroom—of Google’s free educational application, Google Expeditions. The program helps sends students on virtual field trips to from Paris, France to the surface of Mars.

The basic engineering of this item harkens back to the Victorian era stereoscopic (split screen) photograph viewers, on which today’s View-Master toys are based. The concept is to take two nearly identical photos side by side and, when viewed through lenses set a specific distance apart, it appears as one 3-D image.

Even today, most 3-D tech takes advantage of this simple idea, and tech behind Google Cardboard devices is no exception. There are several cardboard device designs available, as well as an easy template pattern to make one at home with upcycled cardboard. Most of the pre-made models range in price from $15 to $25, and we settled on the $19.99 I Am Cardboard version we purchased of Amazon. We even found images of viewers modifying vintage stereoscopes to use with the Google Expedition app. All of these are much more digestible prices for the home consumers, considering many high end VR devices will run well over $100, and sometimes into the thousands.

When we received our I AM Cardboard viewing kit, putting it together took less than ten minutes, even though it included just the bare minimum of instructions. We also had to learn how to properly use the device, which takes advantage of magnets on the side to help activate or control the features and interactive environments. The process is similar to clicking the little lever on the side of a View-Master, but not quite as easy. It takes a couple of tries sometimes to make it work.

By the end of the day, our entire family had gotten a chance to explore the surface of Mars, walk across London’s Tower Bridge (including the upper level walkway), swim in Great Barrier Reef, stroll through natural history, fine art, and air and space museums, do a barrel roll with pilots, and drive around the Top Gear test track with The Stig. Imagine how this type of experience could help excite students in a classroom situation.

girls with app
You really have to stand up to get the full effect of this application and device, at you can look up, down,  and all around during your virtual adventures. Images: Rick Tate.

Unlike traditional stereoscope images, the Google Expeditions options are 360 degree panoramic, and often explorable, scenes. The first scene I found was on the much-photographed grounds surrounding the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but through the Google Map street-view style application I was able to wander away from the tourist-heavy path, and by a secluded playground area in a nearby park, getting to see a slice of everyday life, as if I were there. That, I’ll admit, was really incredible.

Yes, there are plenty of 360 degree panoramic scenes people can explore with their smart phone and tablet devices, including photosphere camera apps to create your own scene, but looking at it via the I Am Cardboard device isolates viewers from the rest of the world, providing a little more feel of actual escape.

However, finding the escapes, especially those that can be crated in the stereoscope split screen suitable for Google Cardboard viewing, takes a some digging.

We found the biggest issue with this fun little gadget is gathering material suitable for use on the device.

The Google Cardboard application was at first introduced for Android devices, and although it is also available for iPhone and iPad, the viewing options are much slimmer. Android users have many more experiences from which to choose.

After exploring the limited albeit extremely cool options readily available, my husband spent a considerable amount of time that afternoon surfing for other options available to use. We found plenty of panoramic and photosphere environments, but not all ready for stereoscopic viewing.

However, we didn’t come up empty. Some of the apps and websites that work well with Google Cardboard include Air Pano, the Littlstar app (not Littlestar; it’s a kids’ music app), 360cities, and the Roundme App. All these can be viewed in stereoscopic VR images.

Also, cardboard being cardboard, we had to reinforce the viewer with some clear packing tape after just one day of wear-and-tear from one family. This means, be wary of just throwing it into the eager grabby hands of an entire school classroom without strict supervision on using it. I also recommend a back up for those wanting to use it regularly in class.

The I AM Cardboard view kits are really very simple little devices…and they can be as fragile as any cardboard box…but they are certainly more affordable than a high end virtual reality device. Images: Rick Tate.

The idea of this item is excellent, but if you want to jump into having a large library of items straight away, especially for non-Android users, I would suggest waiting a while until more content is available.

If you don’t mind hunting a little, there is usable content out there, that, although might not be completely hi-def or interactive.

Even with these limits, I really loved this small, foldable product that requires only smart phone to bring an entire world of learning, virtual travel, and fun into the classroom… or home.

A Meditation Journey

Image by Rebecca Angel

Practicing meditation has become part of my daily routine. Even if I don’t want to, think I don’t have time, or sit there and wonder when I can get on with my day, I do it. Why? Because it works. For what? Oh, so many things.

I like to figure things out myself, do research, and come to logical conclusions. In this way, I started keeping a food diary to understand what was triggering my heartburn. Although I had had mild heartburn before, now it was waking me up with pain at night, randomly during the day, and getting worse. My daughter, an herbalist, created a soothing tonic for me that worked well, plus I had some other natural remedies on hand. But what was causing it in the first place? My husband and I read up on GERD, and I checked out some books from the library. Diet seemed to be an obvious culprit. So the food diary. I wrote down everything I ate for two months, including time of day, plus information about my cycle, how I was feeling, and general events of that day. Conclusion: It wasn’t food.

The solution wasn’t going to be as straightforward as cutting out chocolate (though I was happy it wasn’t that!), because all signs pointed to stress. Staying home reading and drinking tea for the rest of my days might sound nice, but not practical. My husband pointed out the obvious: “Now you need to figure out how to handle stress better.” Doing my next round of research, regular meditation kept popping up. What did science say? Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis says, “Despite the limitations of the literature, the evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation programs could help reduce anxiety, depression, and pain in some clinical populations.” Could I be the right clinical population? Only one way to find out!

As a teen, I had bought some incense and tried out mediation for a few weeks. It was easy to slow my breathing and completely chill out (oh, the ease of the young… and empty-headed). But one night, I kept holding my breath longer and longer until I scared myself from meditating (plus my mom complained about the incense). As an adult, I took up yoga and always enjoyed the short relaxation part at the end lying down. Since I do yoga in the mornings, my thoughts during this resting time were usually planning out my breakfast menu (I love breakfast). I needed some help with this mediation thing.

At the start of the year, I joined up for the Albany Peace Project, which combined daily guided meditations with a science study. My daughter, on break from college, decided to join me each evening as we listened to that day’s guided meditation. Since our house is small, the best place for us to sit together was on the couch. It’s a small couch, so if one of us moved, the other did too. The couch is also right near the kitchen where my husband would be doing dishes or getting a snack, or make a snarky comment about a part of the meditation he was forced to listen to. My son might wander in and out, or ask me something really important like, “Mom, where’s my book?” “Wherever you left it.” “No, really, do you know?” “Did you spend five minutes looking before you asked me, while I’m trying to meditate?” “Um…” And the daily meditations were by different speakers and some of them made us giggle… a lot.

We tried our best, though I didn’t notice any change in my heartburn. Once my daughter went back to college, I attempted to meditate on my own in my quiet bedroom with some online guides. My son recommended some he used. I kept falling asleep. I gave up. A few weeks later, my book club picked A Tale for the Time Being. One of the main characters learns how to meditate (sitting zazen to gain her “supapowah!”) from her great-grandmother Old Jiko, (love, love, love her). And this inspired me to try meditation again. Besides, my heartburn was making me cry. The character in the book meditated in the morning, so I decided that might be my whole issue—wrong time of day! Of course! Now, I’d be able to meditate like a zen master.

I spent much of the spring sucking at meditation. By “sucking,” let me give you an example: I get out my timer, set it for 10 minutes, sit down, close my eyes and fidget while trying to count, forget which number I’m up to because I need to fidget some more, take a few deep breaths to calm down annoyance, start from “one” again, get to “two,” and then remember that I just bought a fancy cheese that would probably be good on toast, open eyes quickly and start to rise, remember I’m meditating and can wait 10 minutes before the cheese, sit back down, close my eyes, start from “one,” realize I never called back X, open eyes and look around for a pen and paper to write that out so I don’t forget, realize I should finish the meditation—just freakin’ finish—take a deep breath, close eyes again, start at “two” just to encourage myself, get to “three”… get to BEEP! Timer goes off! Yay!

But I kept trying. Everyday. A couple of months went by. Regardless of how badly I meditated, I couldn’t help noticing that my heartburn was improving. Days in a row would go by without any pain. Finally, I had a breakthrough. I had just completed a yoga class where the teacher had us visualize different colors for different points up and down our spine. I liked that. When I meditated that day, I decided to visualize a color of the rainbow for each exhale instead of counting. Amazingly, I was able to keep most random thoughts at bay. I did that for a week, and then I remembered I was a musician. I focused on one note in the do-re-mi scale for each exhale. To be specific, I listened to the Mystics from The Dark Crystal singing each note in my mind. Not only did it help me focus and slow my breathing, but even after I finished the Mystics were still singing—and my breathing was calm for awhile afterwards.

My heartburn continued to go away. Other issues were also improving (migraines!). I have sleeping problems, and one night was particularly bad. I thought, “I will never sleep well again and slowly go crazy until I die!” (Things always look bleak at 3:00 a.m.) Then, I remembered meditation. It occurred to me that I didn’t want to fall asleep while meditating, so I had that going for me. I sat up and the Mystics sang while I inhaled and exhaled. At some point, I realized I was (ironically) nodding off. I looked at the clock and had been meditating for over an hour—a new record! I smiled, lay down, and drifted back to sleep.

Six months since that first January distracted meditation, my heartburn is barely a thing for me. My migraines are minimal, and other issues have steadily improved. My meditation experiment will be a long-term study. My daughter encouraged me to keep it up. (“It can’t hurt.”) With the warmer weather, meditating outdoors has been a change of pace. I am still not anywhere near a master. I think about upping the time to even 12 minutes, but I’m not ready yet. I still can’t go the full 10 minutes without being distracted—even with my Mystic singers. But it’s in the journey, right?

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.

Summer Science Fun: Simple Sundial

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Long, lazy summer days call for laid back science experiments! Whether you’re watching ice melt or keeping an eye on a leaf, there are plenty of entertaining experiments that don’t call for Bunsen burners or big explosions. Making a sundial over the course of a day or two is a fun way to take advantage of all that summer sunshine.

All you need are a stick, colorful stones (or stones marked with hours), a notepad, a pencil, and a sunny day.

Start by setting your little scientist on a hunt for a thick, long stick that will form a shadow that’s easy to see in the grass. Push the stick into the dirt in a spot that should get sunshine all day long.

Note where the shadow falls on the grass and place a marker stone on that spot. We used my daughter’s polished rock collection (along with a shell), gathered from various science centers and zoos we’ve visited. We picked a different color for each stone. You can also paint stones with the time marked, or ask your child to select other kinds of markers.

Next, we noted the time each marker would be placed (or was placed).

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Run out into the yard every hour to mark the shadow until your sundial is complete.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Use this experiment to talk about the Earth’s rotation and why the shadow appears longer and shorter at different times of the day.

Lumosity Craposity

brain training is a scam,
Let’s not oversimplify memory and learning. (CC0 Public Domain, pixabay.com.)

We listen to a lot of public radio in my house. Shows like Radiolab and This American Life make chores go faster and often lead to great conversations. But I bristle every time I hear another sponsorship slogan by a certain program underwriter. It goes something like this: “Lumosity, the brain training program to improve memory and performance, for life.”

Every time I hear it, I think of my dad’s experience. My father moved back to his childhood hometown when he was in his seventies. He was delighted to run across lots of people he’d known decades earlier. They recognized him, asked about his family, reminisced about his mother (who’d been a popular high school teacher), and shared stories of their own lives. It was an absolute thrill for him. He felt rooted, more truly at home than he’d felt for years. “Who you are,” he told me, “is all in what you remember.”

The most gut-wrenching part of moving back, for my dad, was meeting up with his old friend Mitchell.* Our language doesn’t yet have a word for the moment when any of us meets up with someone we’ve known for years, only to realize the other person is suffering from dementia.

Developing dementia of any sort was my father’s worst nightmare. He read every article on prevention and subscribed to various journals so he could keep up with the latest Alzheimer’s disease research. He modified his already stringent diet and intensified his rigorous memory preservation efforts; influenced, in part, by advertisements for “brain training” businesses that relentlessly targeted his age group.

He’d recently and very happily remarried, sang in the church choir, went on bike rides, was an enthusiastic bird watcher and gardener. But he’d turn down going to lunch with friends and skip interesting programs at the senior center because he prioritized brain training. He memorized sequential pictures and lists of words, did math problems and crossword puzzles, and clicked through brain training programs for hours every day. He couldn’t have known that his active life would suddenly be cut short by an aneurysm. I’m still saddened by the time he spent indoors hunched over a computer screen instead of letting himself more fully engage in life’s pleasures.

Here’s what’s particularly galling. Experts tell us that more frequent social activities (like the ones my dad kept skipping) offer a protective effect. Studies show that a larger network of regular social contacts is associated with better semantic and working memory well into old age.

Do brain training programs offer similar protective effects? Not really.

As the population ages, more and more people are trying to ward off cognitive decline by using brain games like Brain HQ, Dakim Brain Fitness, My Brain Trainer, and of course, Lumosity. (Over 70 million people use Lumosity, many paying $15 a month.) Customers are assured that such programs will improve memory and thinking skills. They’re told these games are backed by scientific evidence. In fact, Lumosity‘s site lists a number of studies.

Those studies, however, may only tangentially relate to the product or cannot be replicated by more exacting researchers. Some are conducted by those who have a financial link to brain training companies. And here’s the thing: Improvements in game scores don’t really translate into better cognitive functioning in daily life, especially long-term, even though that’s what motivates people to play in the first place.

A few years ago, the Alzheimer’s Society teamed up with BBC to launch a Brain Test Britain study. Over 13,000 people participated. The results weren’t promising. People under 60 got better at the individual games, but their overall mental fitness didn’t improve. An expanded study to test those over 60 is still being analyzed, but it doesn’t sound like breaking news either.

Sure, players will improve their scores on games they enjoy, but if time spent playing subtracts from other more beneficial activities, it’s time squandered. There’s also worry that when brain training customers believe these games protect them from dementia, they may be less likely to eat right, get enough exercise, and pay attention to other means of prevention.

Scientists are speaking up about this. A joint statement titled “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community” was released last year by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The 70 scientists who participated summed it up this way,

We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline.

All of us are used to companies stretching the truth in order to get more customers. But we live at a time when one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.  It’s estimated that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will triple in the next 40 years.  It’s particularly heinous when companies exploit those very real fears. When trusted news outlets accept money from these companies, that’s when I turn off the radio.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Would You Let Your Kids Play With Fusion?

The boy who played with fusion,
Taylor mixing methanol and sodium hydroxide in a biodiesel production experiment. (image permission: Wilson family)

Science is basic to who we are. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “I can’t think of any more human activity than conducting science experiments… every child is a scientist. And so when I think of science, I think of a truly human activity—something fundamental to our DNA, something that drives curiosity.”

Some kids are driven to push that curiosity ever farther. Or maybe their parents and other adults foster curiosity in a way that lets them take it as far as it will go. That’s a central theme in The Boy Who Played with Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star, a book by Tom Clynes about physics prodigy Taylor Wilson. At age 14, Wilson became “one of only thirty-two individuals on the planet to build a working fusion reactor.”

The book is alarming, especially with the danger inherent in Taylor’s early pyrotechnic and, later, radioactive projects. But it’s more alarming to consider how many children are unable to explore their gifts as Taylor and his brother did through their growing up years. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates there are three to five million gifted school-aged children in the U.S., that’s about 6 to 10 percent of the population. And even in prestigious gifted programs, the emphasis is on college prep, affording very few young people the freedom to explore unusual interests. As Clynes warns,

Everyone’s heard the bright-kid-overcomes-all anecdotes. But the bigger picture, based on decades of data, shows that these children are the rare exceptions. For every such story, there are countless nonstories of other gifted children who were unnoticed, submerged, and forgotten in homes and schools ill-equipped to nurture extraordinary potential.

The book is also inspiring. That’s not limited to Taylor’s accomplishments. It includes his parents and many other adults who have done everything possible to advance his interests. It’s true, few of us have the business and social connections Taylor’s father was able to access. He made a few calls to have a full-sized construction crane brought for Taylor’s sixth birthday party and spoke to a senator in order to get his 11-year-old son a tour of a shut-down nuclear reactor.

Taylor’s parents were also able to connect him with expert mentors. That’s pivotal when most high-achieving adults say having a mentor was vital, yet meaningful mentorship opportunities are scare in today’s educational environments.

The overall approach Taylor’s parents took is exactly what gifted education specialists prescribe. As Clynes writes, this has to do with “staying involved and supportive without pushing them, letting them take intellectual risks, and connecting them with resources and mentors and experiences that allow them to follow and extend their interests.”

Most pioneering and high-achieving adults say that having a mentor was important to their development - but meaningful mentorship opportunities are scare in today's educational environments. (image permission: Deanne Fitzmaurice/National Geographic)
Most pioneering and high-achieving adults say that having a mentor was important to their development, but meaningful mentorship opportunities are scare in today’s educational environments. (image permission: Deanne Fitzmaurice/National Geographic)

We’ve found that supporting a child’s fascination with science (and every other subject) is about saying yes. It has little to do with spending money, more to do with putting time into expanding on a child’s interest without taking over. Clynes agrees, reminding parents that they play a pivotal role.

…We parents believe our own children deserve exceptional treatment. And the latest science actually supports our intuition that our children are gifted. A growing body of academic research suggests that nearly all children are capable of extraordinary performance in some domain of expertise and that the processes that guide the development of talent are universal; the conditions that allow it to flourish apply across the entire spectrum of intellectual abilities. Parents, the primary creators of a child’s environment, are the most important catalysts of intellectual development. While there’s no single right way to rear a gifted kid, talent-development experts say there are best practices for nurturing a child’s gifts in ways that lead to high achievement and happiness.

Here are some of those best practices.

  • Starting young, expose children to all sorts of places. “Early novel experiences play an important role in shaping the brain systems that enable effective learning, creativity, self-regulation, and task commitment.”
  • Pay attention to signs of strong interest, then offer the freedom to explore those passions. Studies show strong interests are often fleeting windows of opportunity for talent development that may fizzle if the child doesn’t have opportunities to cultivate them. “Don’t be afraid to pull your kids out of school to give them an especially rich and deep learning experience, especially when it relates to something they’re curious about.”
  • Don’t worry if strong passions don’t develop early on. The learning process has a way of taking off on its own whenever kids find a passion.
  • The major role for parents of children with intellectual or other passions is to facilitate, not push, by connecting them with resources that continue to expand on that interest. In Taylor’s case, most of these resources that gave him hands-on experience.

Taylor has gone on to develop a prototype that can more inexpensively produce isotopes for medical use and a radiation detector for use in securing borders against nuclear terrorists. He is now 21 years old and a recipient of a 2-year Thiel Fellowship. Rights to a movie based on his story have already been acquired.

Clynes closes the last page with this reminder.

Whether we use it or not, we have the recipe…parents who are courageous enough to give their children wings and let them fly in the directions they choose; schools that support children as individuals; a society that understands the difference between elitism and individualized education and that addresses the needs of kids at all levels.

How comfortable would you be with radioactivity?  (image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
How comfortable would you be with radioactivity?
(image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

GeekMom received a sample for review purposes

Summer Science Fun: Make Pink Tea!

Image by Rebecca Angel

Science experiments are fun when you can play with them, but they are more fun when you can eat them! Or, in this case, drink.

Litmus paper is used to show the pH scale in chemistry. Litmus is what chemists call an acid-base indicator. Although it’s great for science, do you have it handy in your home? Well, I don’t, and any extra step means I never get around to doing the science. For the busy (lazy) parents like me, we need a different acid-base indicator. And I love tea.

In a previous post, my daughter made me violet flower tea, which is blue but turned pink when lemon juice was added. She also gave a good explanation on how this happened. If you have some violets, it’s a simple recipe to try (and pretty! and tasty!).

How about regular tea? Tea (Camillia Sinensis) contains tannins, which can act as acid-base indicators with color: Acidic lemon juice and tea turn light yellow, alkaline baking soda and tea turn reddish-brown.

Kashimiri Tea, Pink Tea, or Noon Tea are all the same names for a distinct tea recipe from Kashmir, a region near the Himalayas in South Asia. (A quick geography lesson would be appropriate here too.) The tea turns pink! And you can drink it! Yummy science!

Pink Tea
5 cups water
1 tablespoon semi-fermented tea, such as oolong (some recipes use green tea, so use it if that’s what you have)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt (traditional, but sugar can be substituted)
cream, half and half, or whole milk (Yak milk is often used, if you have it…)
cardamom seeds and star anise (optional)

1. In a sauce pan, combine a quart of water with the tea and baking soda. Let it come to a boil and then lower to medium heat for a half hour.
2. Turn off heat.
3. Add cold water.
4. Mix the tea by lifting a ladle filled with tea up about 8 inches and letting it pour back in the pan. A parent or older child should do this since it will splash. Repeat 10-20 times. This is the fun and messy part!
5. Add some cardamom and star anise.
6. Add salt (or sugar).
7. Let sit for a few minutes.
8. Strain the tea.
9. Pour in cream until the color is pink.
10. Drink up!

As you can see in my picture above, I didn’t get a super pink color, but since I really liked the flavor, I’ll be trying it again. Here is an explanation of tannins and color changes. Remember, if you have acidic water, it won’t work! What other acid-base indicators are in our kitchens? And did you like the tea?

Tide Pool Party

2015-06-07 13.43.48
Photo by Sarah James

O has been obsessed with the ocean and sea life for about a year now (thanks Octonauts!). And, while we regularly visit the aquarium here in Seattle, it’s indoors, which, on a gorgeous day, just feels wrong. When we found out a friend of ours had joined the aquarium’s Beach Naturalist Program and would be leading a tide pool walk, we jumped at the chance to go.

2015-06-07 13.48.05
Photo by Sarah James

The Beach Naturalist Program is a great resource. These men and women are local volunteers who really know their stuff. At low tide on weekends throughout the summer here in Seattle, they head out to the area’s beaches to educate the public on sea life, habitats, and how best to share the beach with these creatures and plants.

Saturday was a perfect day to be at the beach—record high temperatures meant that, for once, there were no clouds in the sky—and we all suited up in shorts, sport sandals, and a thick layer of sunscreen and headed to the tide pools.

We had a blast. We saw crabs, clams, many kids of seaweed, aggregate anemones, moon snail egg collars, blue herons, and all kinds of other sea flora and fauna.

2015-06-07 13.54.12
Photo by Sarah James

O had the best time of all, splashing through the shallows and listening to our Beach Naturalist friend, who helped him to use his “science finger” to touch all the cool, squishy, brightly colored things lying all over the beach. We also taught him about respecting the ecosystem—don’t take souvenirs, leave dogs at home, and try not to disturb the plant life.

2015-06-07 13.52.54
Photo by Sarah James

If you’re in Seattle with kids this summer, I can’t recommend this unique expedition enough! You can find more information about this program at the Seattle Aquarium’s site. And if you’re not in Seattle, make sure to check and see if your local aquarium runs a similar program. Or just do some googling and head out yourself. Just make sure you respect the beach. Happy tide pooling!

2015-06-07 13.50.03 (1)
Photo by Sarah James

Gameband Is the Ultimate Wearable (for ‘Minecraft’ Players)

Image via Gameband.

Gameband + Minecraft is something special for fans of Minecraft. It’s a wearable (yeah, I know we’re hearing a LOT about those these days), but it’s a wearable with a big difference. Gameband is a portable game of Minecraft you take with you on your wrist. It’s YOUR personal, portable game of Minecraft.

The basic idea is that users can play Minecraft from the Gameband on most any computer (Windows, Mac, and even Linux), as the game is pre-installed on Gameband (but the user needs to have purchased the game license separately). On top of that, Gameband comes with a bunch of pre-loaded contents including awesome maps created by community-favorites SethBling, Dragnoz, and Hypixel. What’s really special is that whatever you do in a given session using the Gameband is automatically backed up to the Gameband, and if you have Internet connectivity, it’ll be backed up to the cloud as well (via Gameband’s servers). You’ll never lose your world again, and you can take it anywhere you want to go!

[This post was sponsored by Gameband]

photo 7
Image via Gameband.

As you can see, the Gameband is much, much more than just a USB stick on a bracelet. It’s a whole world you can create, and carry on your wrist. It’s also a fun piece of geeky wearable art that you can program yourself. And it’s built to stand up to the kind of wear-and-tear that kids will put their accessories through.

And let’s not fail to notice that, as you might have noticed in the video, the folks at Mojang, who ARE Minecraft, are big fans of the Gameband.


Price: $79.99 – Available at Gameband.com, or at Target, Gamespot, Microsoft stores, and Best Buy.


Target Promo 2
Image via Gameband.

Pay special note: right now, at Target stores, you can get a $15 Target gift card when you buy a Gamband!

Go Green With The All-New 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid

2016 Sonata Hybrid (2)
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. Image: Hyundai.

Gas prices have left the stratospheric heights they reached a few years ago, which means people aren’t thinking about hybrids these days. The pain at the pump isn’t so bad and hybrids get a bum wrap for being blah, ho-hum cars that no one wants to drive. The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid has been completely redone this year, giving you plenty of reasons to go green.

There are two models to choose from, so you can go traditional hybrid or opt for the new plug-in model. Both are surprisingly not hybrid-ish behind the wheel. You’re not driving a sports car, but you also won’t feel like you’re driving a glorified scooter. There’s even a chance for you to play with your drive experience by selecting one of three drive modes.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

Eco is the most economical choice and it’s also the least exciting. I wouldn’t drive in Eco unless I found myself in the middle of nowhere, desperately trying to eke out the best fuel economy possible.

There’s a huge difference when you switch to Normal and the Sonata Hybrid suddenly becomes a car you want to drive. Press on the gas and the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine proves that it is alive after all, with 193 net horsepower in the hybrid and 202 net horsepower in the plug-in. It’s all paired to a very smooth 6-speed automatic transmission.

Turn things up one more level to Sport and the steering and throttle response increase slightly. Again, not a sports car, but you’ll completely forget you’re in a hybrid, especially if you can find a nice winding road with tight corners. Opt for the plug-in and you unfortunately lose Sport mode, but stick with Normal and you’ll still be happy.

There’s a nifty energy indicator in the instrument cluster that lets you see how your driving style and choice of modes are affecting your fuel economy. It gamifies the driving experience by breaking things out to show how often you’re driving efficiently and how often you’re driving like Mario Andretti. It’s likely to make you ease up on the gas, if the numbers aren’t going in the right direction.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

The plug-in will run in three different modes and you can choose which one. There’s electric, hybrid, and battery charge. It can run purely on electric for 24 miles, more than any other vehicle in its class. That does mean it has a larger charge time of about 3 hours on a 110 volt and nine hours on 240 volt. It also has a class-leading range of 605 miles.

On the outside, there are some changes from the gas version of the Hyundai Sonata. There’s a larger grille, modified front and rear bumpers, and new wheel designs. It’s like a stealth hybrid that doesn’t want to brag about being green.

Hyundai has also pushed a lot of the battery components beneath the floor mat in the trunk to make for a nice flat load surface. It has 13.3 cubic feet of cargo space, so there’s plenty of room for groceries or a family’s luggage. They did eliminate a spare tire to free up some of that space, but there is a tire-mending kit instead.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

While we’re talking about all that space provided by the lack of spare and relocated battery, let’s talk about the warranty. The car has a 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 10-year/100,000-powertrain warranty, but the best part is the lifetime hybrid battery warranty. They’re the only ones with a lifetime warranty on their hybrid battery, giving them a huge advantage over the other guys.

The interior is spacious and, as is typical of today’s Hyundai, absolutely beautiful. They aren’t the cars they were a few years ago and this is a very good thing. The Sonata Hybrid has plenty of room for a family of four and if you need to put someone in the middle in the back, they won’t hate you for giving them that seat.

There are two big reasons people buy hybrids. The first is environmental responsibility and the second is fuel economy. Hyundai has the first one covered not just by producing a hybrid, but by being environmentally responsible at a corporate level.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. Image: Hyundai.

Their recently remodeled headquarters uses recycled concrete from the old building to reduce waste and varying types of glass on the windows to make climate control more efficient. They even boxed up 73 pine trees and kept them safe during construction before replanting them at the new finished building.

They’ve got the second one covered with the numbers you’d expect from a hybrid. The estimated highway fuel economy on the Sonata Hybrid is 44 mpg, while the plug-in electric gets 93 mpge. You will happily be driving past the pump far more often than you have to stop.

The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid offer two great choices for those looking to go green with their next car purchase. A beautiful and comfortable interior, sporty styling, great fuel economy, and that lifetime hybrid battery warranty make this car a winner.

Hyundai covered my expenses to attend this drive event.

Need Inspiration? Check Out the #girlswithtoys Hashtag

Visible role models are important, so when I saw #girlswithtoys, complete with photos of women in STEM with their science “toys,” show up in my Twitter feed, I had to share. The hashtag was started by Slate writer Kate Clancy to provide visible role models of women in science.

Here are some of my favorites:

And I couldn’t resist adding a photo of the DIY science zone at GeekGirlCon from 2013:

Leaf rubbings at the GGC Science Zone
Leaf rubbings at the GGC Science Zone in 2013

America Needs More STEM…But…

Image credit: Argonne National Laboratory (Science Careers in Search of Women 2009) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Young women participate in a conference at the Argonne National Laboratory. Image credit: Argonne National Laboratory (Science Careers in Search of Women 2009) [CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]
It’s funny that I’m writing a post such as this, since for years I’ve been a huge advocate of STEM in schools. Some of my Facebook friends might argue that I’ve been downright pushy about it. I am vocal not just about the need to further develop STEM topics in Common Core and No Child Left Behind, but also the critical thinking skills and scientific reasoning that emerges as a consequence.

Recently, since I’ve become more active in STEM outreach such as the Southern Colorado Girls’ STEM Initiative and the Girls in the Middle program, I’m finding myself tempering my near-militant rhetoric. I seriously used to say things such as:

“Of course you want to become a scientist when you grow up! Why wouldn’t you?”

“We don’t have enough women inspired to pursue STEM careers; what would change your mind?”

The highest-paying jobs in America are based on STEM skills!”

“America needs to return to that science and technology dominance we had during the Apollo program! Those great things were done by SCIENCE!”

I’ve come to two realizations in recent weeks about my personal treatment of the STEM movement. Others are already heading in this direction, as evidenced by programs such as the Maker Movement and a shift in nomenclature from “STEM” to “STEAM.” I want to join in with open arms. Many of you might think, “I knew that already!” but bear with me as I continue to find my place in making the world better than I found it.

STEM Isn’t Necessarily for Everyone, But the Scientific Method Is

STEM is well and good for those who clearly have a passion for it, but what about those who have a passion for American literature? For ancient history? For politics? Perhaps it’s the GeekMom in me, but it’s important to let one’s passions bloom, and if there’s someone who doesn’t want to pursue STEM as a career, let’s not push that too hard.

Starting this year, at the programs where I run physics, mathematics, and meteorology exploration programs for middle school students, I dig deeper into the students’ interests and open a dialogue about whether those interests—irrespective of whether the interests are STEMmy or not—could translate into careers. I help the students explore whatever they come up with, regardless of whether it’s STEM. If a student tells me, “I love reading, and my favorite book is The Giver. I want to be a writer just like Lois Lowry”, we can have a conversation about what it might be like to be a writer for a living [with the caveat that I don’t write for a living, but I write for fun and have an anecdotal understanding of the benefits and challenges of doing it for a living].

I understand that even though STEM may not be for everyone, America is still working hard, from the White House to grass-roots organizations, to bring back the problem solving and scientific method practices that seemed to fall by the wayside as American public schools overhauled its curricula due to No Child Left Behind. These skills are necessary to return the science and mathematics “higher ground” that we held during the Cold War. Scientific method concepts should be taught to all students, whether they ultimately pursue STEM careers or not. Embedded in the scientific method are tasks that will help our students become better readers, better problem solvers, and better citizens. For example, establishing a hypothesis inspires learners to think through a problem from start-to-finish before rushing into a solution. In addition, the skills developed when analyzing data helps students question everything, a trait that I think will instill success not just in science and tech fields, but also art, management, finance, sports, and history.

STEM and the Humanities Work Hand-in-Hand

My inspiration to write this post came from a Washington Post Op-Ed from last March that was shared by a Facebook friend of mine who happens to be a history professor. His meme-inspired comment with the post, “STEM will help you clone a T-Rex. Humanities will help explain why it’s a bad idea,” caught my attention and put a smile on my face.

The author of the Op-Ed, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, recently published a book titled In Defense of a Liberal Education, and much of the material in the Washington Post piece is drawn from the book. His opinion is worth checking out, as I discussed in this month’s “Between the Bookends“.

Granted, I think using the word “dangerous” in the Op-Ed title is on the dramatic side, but as I read the article, I found myself nodding my head in agreement more than I thought I would. Zakaria presents a historical context to why American public education was revolutionary, even in the 19th century, for breaking away from the European apprenticeship-model of educating only in the skills required for a trade. American public schools are more well-rounded, allowing graduates to head in one of several directions, regardless of his or her upbringing, gender, race, or economic status.

Zakaria hypothesizes that the emphasis on producing skilled STEM labor at the expense of liberal arts graduates, is a step in the wrong direction as a nation. I agree with Zakaria, but I would go a step further to say that producing skilled STEM labor at the expense of someone to wants to be a liberal arts graduate is a disservice to the American dream. If someone wants to be a liberal arts scholar, certainly don’t discourage it. America needs such scholars.

The skills students learn by studying the humanities and social sciences has inspired true visionaries in America, from Elon Musk to Steve Jobs. In fact, Jobs has told the story of how a calligraphy class served as an inspiration for the work he put into accurate type-facing on the first Macintosh computers.

What Can We Do as Role Models?

If you’re a geeky parent reading this, you probably already received the memo: inspire your children to delve into their dreams, with passion, always performing their best. As your children get older, perhaps a goal-setting exercise is in order. We’ve done things like that with our own children… even if their passions change direction along the way, we will help them redirect to meet their new goals. If you have the chance to serve as a role model to other youth, such as as a schoolteacher or sports coach, never discourage a child’s dream. Don’t get me wrong, if a child’s dream is to be the “king of the world”, perhaps a slight nudge is in order, but never be discouraging. Most of you know that already…I doubt our audience thinks otherwise.

The other thing I’d like to suggest is that you encourage your mentorees to consider the applicability and practicality of their career choices. If your children are choosing more-obscure fields that may not have well-paying jobs upon graduation, do they have a plan for making a living? For paying back student loans? For giving back to the community? These are also lessons that need to be embedded in our conversations about whether or not our country’s youth should be flocking toward STEM careers. Are we about to flood the market for chemical engineers, nurses, and spectroscopists? Will there come a time when an engineering graduate will not be able to find a job…because there are none? Will there be an outright void in America’s humanities talent pool?

Obviously we don’t have those answers yet. Just the same, think about how to strike that balance between letting America’s youth pursue their dreams (whether literate or numerate), filling a need for STEM jobs, and reestablishing the wholesale critical thinking attitudes that brought us STEM and non-STEM greatness in our country, such as the Apollo space program, the Human Genome Project, or the designs of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial and the iPhone.

Eccentrics R Us

 are you eccentric,
Not just another apple off the tree. (iblushay, cco public domain)

I met Betty years ago. She was a large lady dressed in layers of brightly colored clothes, who walked with the help of a carved walking stick. Because her eyesight was so poor, she often asked for help reading street signs. I was the lucky person she asked that day.

We hit it off immediately, riffling on words and laughing wryly about politics. But when I made a banal comment (probably about the weather or something equally trite), Betty would have none of it. She asked why I bothered to say it. While I was busy thinking about her question, she moved on to far more fascinating topics. Her honesty was more overt than the huge pendant dangling around her neck. I admired her for it. I was newly married at 18, attending college full time, plus working and volunteering. Sometimes I felt as if I were playacting in all these unfamiliar roles. Simply by example, Betty made it clear that playacting didn’t cut it.

Until her last days, Betty was a fascinating woman. She could talk knowledgeably about religion, politics, and literature as well as motorcycle racing and vintage cars. She read avidly, even though her poor sight forced her to hold a book inches away from her face. Known in the area as a white witch, she cast spells for many notable people and organizations. (Her attempts on behalf of the Cleveland Indians to lift the Curse of Rocky Colavito weren’t one of her successes.) In the early 2000s, the city of Lakewood asked her to clean up what they considered an overgrown yard. When an inspector showed up, she toured him through her herb gardens, explaining what each plant could cure. Perhaps because she gave him a homemade remedy for insomnia, she was never cited for those unruly gardens.

The truly eccentric people I know don’t try to stand out. They don’t affect certain behaviors, clothes, or interests in order to be seen as non-conformists. They do their best to live in a world of conventions while simply being themselves.

We live in a marvelous time when we’re far freer to be who we are. That’s great for us as individuals but also great for humanity, since eccentrics seem to play a larger role than others in advancing exploration, the arts, and sciences. Their differences stretch the possibilities for all of us.

In Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness,  psychiatrist David Weeks explains that eccentrics are physically healthier and significantly happier than “normal” people. He notes that eccentrics are wildly diverse, yet share common characteristics. Here are his 25 descriptors of eccentricity, listed in descending order of importance. (Dr. Weeks says the first five are the most significant characteristics.)

  • Enduring non-conformity
  • Creativity
  • Strongly motivated by an exceedingly powerful curiosity and related exploratory behavior
  • An enduring and distinct feeling of differentness from others
  • Idealism
  • Happily obsessed with a number of long-lasting preoccupations (usually about five or six)
  • Intelligent, in the upper 15 percent of the population on tests of intelligence
  • Opinionated and outspoken, convinced of being right and that the rest of the of the world is out of step with them
  • Non-competitive
  • Not necessarily in need of reassurance or reinforcement from the rest of society
  • Unusual eating habits and living arrangements
  • Not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except perhaps in order to persuade them to their contrary point of view
  • Possessed of a mischievous sense of humor, charm, whimsy, and wit
  • More frequently an eldest or an only child
  • Eccentricity observed in at least 36% of detailed family histories, usually a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. (It should be noted that the family history method of estimating hereditary similarities and resemblances usually provides rather conservative estimates.)
  • Eccentrics prefer to talk about their thoughts rather than their feelings. There is a frequent use of the psychological defense mechanisms of rationalization and intellectualization.
  • Slightly abrasive
  • Midlife changes in career or lifestyle
  • Feelings of “invisibility,” which means that they believe other people did not seem to hear them or see them, or take their ideas seriously
  • Feel that others can only take them in small doses
  • Feel that others have stolen, or would like to steal, their ideas. In some cases, this is well-founded.
  • Dislike small talk or other apparently inconsequential conversation
  • A degree of social awkwardness
  • More likely to be single, separated, or divorced, or multiply separated or divorced
  • A poor speller, in relation to their above average general intellectual functioning

See yourself here? A family member or friend?

The documentary A Different Drummer highlights people more overtly unusual than Betty. In fact, Dr. Weeks claims only one in 10,000 people are truly eccentric. I suspect the number is much higher.

Sure, some eccentrics are more flamboyant than others, but I think the Bettys of the world qualify. So does a toddler obsessed with vacuums, who grew into a little boy driven to fix broken appliances and equipment he rescued from the trash. So does a girl so fascinated by forensics that she spent weeks sketching the decomposition of a muskrat and recently assembled an entire deer skeleton in the driveway. So do many of the interesting people around all of us. My family tree is well leafed out with eccentrics, my friends are orchards of eccentricity, and maybe I’m eccentric too. How about you?

Happy 25th Anniversary, Hubble!

Image Credit: Hubble25.org, NASA
Image Credit: Hubble25.org, NASA

Who remembers April 1990?

I was a junior in high school. “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor topped the Billboard 100, while the films Pretty Woman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were dominating the box office.

On April 24, 1990, the space shuttle Discovery lifted off carrying a remarkable piece of hardware: the Hubble Space Telescope, named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble. The day after liftoff, the telescope was placed into low earth orbit. By having this telescope outside of Earth’s atmosphere, brilliant images in the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared spectra are possible.

Today we honor this invention’s 25th anniversary with commemorative events and celebrations of the amazing discoveries we’ve had based on the brilliant images it’s sent back to earth.

Image credit: NASA.gov
The Hubble Space Telescope is placed into low-earth orbit. Image credit: NASA.gov

I remember the news about how there were problems with the first images. Within a few weeks the cause of the problem was identified: the blurriness was due to errors in mirror construction. What’s remarkable is that the error was on the order of just a few nanometers, yet it caused significant problems in the sharpness of the images.

It wasn’t until late 1993 that the first repair mission was launched, and a series of corrective components were installed during a record-breaking five-days worth of space walks.

The difference in image clarity was amazing!

Note the clarity in this image of Melnick-34 after the correction components were installed on the Hubble! Image credit: NASA.gov
Note the clarity in this image of Melnick-34 after the correction components were installed on the Hubble! Image credit: NASA.gov

I remember the news about the corrections: I was in college, having had made several friends in the Penn State Astronomy Club. My friends had access to the first of the images coming in. For those who are familiar with the Apollo 13 story, the spirit of innovation and critical thinking rose to the challenge in a similar manner. America as a whole was rooting for science!

Yesterday, in honor of the 25th anniversary, NASA and ESA released a gorgeous image of the Westerlund 2 star cluster. The image was deemed “celestial fireworks” in honor of the anniversary.

There are events scheduled throughout the year honor this great invention. To learn more, be sure to visit the telescope’s anniversary site, the official Hubble Space Telescope site, and the Hubble’s Flickr site to enjoy the best images.

Lands’ End Redeems Itself With Nerdy Shirts For Girls—And Not One Shirt About Being Adorable!

Has Lands' End joined the 21st century with a collection of smart shirts for girls too.
Lands’ End Smart Tees for girls. Screenshot of landsend.com taken by Ariane Coffin.

Yesterday, I found a Lands’ End post creep up on my Facebook feed, featuring “Smart Tees for boys and girls.” I got really excited, and even more so when I noticed that out of the 19 shirts on their list, nine of them were for girls. Not one or two, but around 50 percent. No way!

Then I remembered hearing some noise last year about Lands’ End gender stereotyping their kids’ shirts, and I started to feel doubtful. If I removed the filter for “Smart Tees” and browsed everything they offered as a whole, would I find more bad than good?

Has Lands' End joined the 21st century with a collection of smart shirts for girls too.
Lands’ End Smart Tees for girls. Screenshot of landsend.com taken by Ariane Coffin.

Well, I guess Lands’ End learned their lesson because I did not find a single girl shirt with the words “adorable,” “cute,” or “sassy.” As a mother of two young girls, let me tell you that’s a breath of fresh air. A hurricane of fresh air.

Time will tell if Lands’ End is just waiting for the dust to settle or has really joined the 21st century, but in the meantime, please excuse while I do some online shopping for my little space geeks.

Tea Science 101: Oxidation, Not Fermentation

Image By Lilianna Maxwell

While sitting inside the loveliest tea house I had ever been in, I read their tea guide which explained that the difference between green and black tea was fermentation.

“What? No!” I exclaimed loudly to my friends, who were trying to enjoy their beverages. “Regular black tea is oxidized, not fermented! How can a tea house get it wrong!” My friends shushed me and didn’t think it was a big deal. But I wrote a long explanation on a comment card when we left.

In another tea house bathroom, they had a wall display that also stated this fallacy. I took my pen and boldly crossed out “fermentation” and wrote “oxidation” in its place. There. At least the ladies would be informed of the truth in that establishment.

Green, black, white, oolong, and pu-ehr tea all come from the same plant: camellia sinesis. Yet the tastes are different depending on the growing location, harvesting techniques, and most importantly, how they are processed after picking.

Most teas are dried in different ways with different levels of oxidation happening. There are teas that undergo fermentation, like pu-erh. Who cares? I do. If a book, company, or shop is going to bother explaining the science behind their product, get it right!

So what is the difference between oxidation and fermentation? I’m going to step away from tea for a moment to explain, since the tea videos I found are boring and/or interchange “oxidation” and “fermentation” as if they were the same thing. If I leave my metal bike outside in the rain, it will rust. That’s oxidation.

If I coat my bike with sugar and let some wild bacteria start to grow…then I have a bad example. Nevermind. Back to drinks.

Fermentation involves bacteria or yeast that eat sugars to produce carbon dioxide, and in the case of yeast—alcohol. Beer is made with fermentation. If you let beer oxidize, sadness. The difference is important! Here’s a video about fermentation and an example of making soda.

They are two completely different chemical processes and anyone who is in the tea business should make it their business to get the science correct. Science literacy and delicious tea forever!

A Durable, Enjoyable, and (Gasp!) Affordable Microscope for Kids

SmartLab Toys Indoor-Outdoor Microscope. Photo: Kelly Knox
SmartLab Toys Indoor-Outdoor Microscope. Photo: Kelly Knox

My daughter has been fascinated by peering into microscopes since she was in preschool, but with most selling for $50+, we’ve never had the extra funds to invest in one to have at home. So when I heard about the $20 microscope from SmartLab Toys that’s built to survive wear and tear both indoors and outdoors, I had to give it a try.

While the microscope doesn’t seem much more powerful than a magnifying glass, it’s more than enough to get her excited about discovering a whole new world we can’t see until we look through the lens.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

The Indoor-Outdoor Microscope from SmartLab Toys magnifies at 40 times normal size. While it isn’t strong enough to see individual cells, it certainly is enough to astonish and delight little scientists seeing things like insect legs or a blade of grass up close for the first time. In fact, the microscope comes with four prepared slides, so the second you open the box, your kids can dive right in.

Blank slides and specimen containers are also included, so kids can run around the house or into the backyard to find anything their inquisitive hearts desire.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Setting up a blade of grass on a blank side. Photo: Kelly Knox

The microscope is made of plastic, which makes it more durable and easy to carry than a heavy glass and metal microscope—in fact, it’s so portable that we took the entire kit on vacation out of state. The microscope can be removed easily from the stand and used by itself to look at tree bark, the sidewalk, large rocks, and more.

The kit also comes with a colorful book, Up Close and Personal by Shar Levine, that includes suggestions for activities while inspiring genuine enthusiasm about science. My kindergartener was more than amused by looking at toilet paper up close, just one of many fun suggestions in the companion book.

Toilet paper up close. Photo: Kelly Knox
Toilet paper up close. Photo: Kelly Knox

Not only does my six-year-old enjoy finding new things to examine in the microscope, the fun is contagious; friends and grownups get into the hunt with just as much excitement. The recommended age is 8 and up, but all elementary-age kids can use the microscope with a grownup’s help.

The microscope comes with three LR-44 button cell batteries. When the time comes for you to switch them out, you can easily find affordable replacements on Amazon.com. It’s worth noting that the first microscope we received burnt out within minutes, presumably due to a faulty bulb as switching the batteries had no effect, but the replacement item has lasted for multiple uses.

SmartLab Toys is offering a special deal just for GeekMom readers. You can order the Indoor-Outdoor Microscope on the SmartLab Toys web site, and use the discount code SPRING15 for 25% off through 4/30/15! With such a fantastic deal on a STEM toy, it’s definitely worth giving it a try.

GeekMom received a promotional item for review purposes. 

The Planet Tatooine, Realized!

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
Image an Earth-like planet orbiting what’s known as “binary stars,” similar to what Luke Skywalker saw every day from Tatooine. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

This week, researchers from the University of Utah and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory announced submission of a paper discussing the possibility of “rocky” planets forming such that they would orbit what’s known as “binary stars.” In other words, a planet such as Earth could exist in the universe with two suns.

Titled “Planet formation around binary stars: Tatooine made easy,” and stemming from the Kepler telescope discovery of numerous gaseous planets that have already formed near binary stars, Ben Bromley and Scott Kenyon ran mathematical models that prove that it’s plausible for “planetesimals,” clumps of asteroid rocks, to form and settle into orbit near binary stars.

Until now, it had been assumed that the competing gravitational pulls of two suns would prohibit a rocky planet from surviving in a steady orbit, but it appears that a steady orbit might indeed be possible.

Ben Bromley and Scott Kenyon have submitted their paper to The Astrophysical Journal, and are awaiting formal peer-reviewed publication, but for now you can read the submission at the website ArXiv.

A real live Tatooine. Out there. Somewhere.

Mind blown!

Check Out This Sweet Tool for Electronics Comparison Shopping

Screenshot from http://www.productchart.com/3d_printers/
Screenshot from http://www.productchart.com/3d_printers/

Want to know which flash drive or SSD gives you the most GB for the dollar? Or trying to find your options for a laptop with a touchscreen, 10 GB of RAM, and a 17″ screen? If you haven’t seen www.productchart.com, it does all those things, comparing smartphones, laptops, tablets, flash drives, and solid state drives in a convenient chart form. And as of Thursday, the site lets you compare 3D printers as well.

Germany-based programmer Marek Gibney created the tool. Clearly excited by data, he also created Gnoosic, a tool that helps you find new music you’ll like based on the stuff you already enjoy.

How To Celebrate Arduino Day

Image credit: https://day.arduino.cc

Are you ready for Arduino Day this Saturday? If you’ve been thinking about getting the kids started with this popular hardware, the day dedicated to the purpose seems like as good a time as any! There are events happening around the world as well as online. Here’s how to find the best celebration for you:

Know of other ways and places to celebrate Arduino Day? Let us know in the comments.

Lego Large Hadron Collider

All Images: Nathan Readioff

Whatever your level of interest in particle physics, you have to admit, the Large Hadron Collider is just cool. This is the new frontier in a way that the moon was for previous generations. In the way that the edge of the world was for Pythagoras. This is the kind of thing that humanity is meant to do.

Cern2Of course, humanity is also meant to play with Lego, just because. So it is with great glee that I urge you to vote for the LHC kit at Lego Ideas. That’s right, a LHC kit made of Lego bricks. Could you get any more technical? The idea only needs to get 10,000 supporters to be reviewed by the Lego content team, so come on GeekMoms, let’s rally!

With 10,000 supporters, the project enters the LEGO review phase. The review board consists of set designers and marketing representatives. The project will then be evaluated according to Lego review criteria, following which the board will hand pick the few projects that will become new LEGO Ideas sets. Lego guarantees that every project in review gets a fair shot.

The next step is simple. Projects that are selected during the LEGO Review phase will go into production. That’s it. The originating designer will be allowed to give their input to the professional LEGO designers, who will create the final set. Then it goes to the factory, and then is shipped around the world and released for sale. The original designer gets written credit, a financial share in the project, and the joy of seeing their finished product for sale.

Cern3The designer, Nathan Readioff, is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool in England. He is currently based at CERN and working on the real ATLAS detector where he is studying the Higgs Boson. This is as real a deal as you can get.

This is the kind of kit that motivates kids—it brings science to life in a tangible way. Let them get their hands on their own LHC, feed their imagination, and who knows what the next generation of physicists will come up with.

Can’t wait for the kit to go through this process? The plans are available on the Build-Your-Own-Particle-Detector website. You just have to supply your own building materials. There is a fully comprehensive parts list to go along with the plans.