Starting From Scratch: Developing Interest

Teaching kids coding is one of the current buzz topics in schools, and rightly so. Programming is a vital skill, so much so that the National Curriculum in the UK—the government’s official guidelines on what schools are required to teach—has recently been updated to include the subject from a very young age.

My six year old has already come home talking about debugging algorithms, words I never used in all my years of schooling. I wanted to be involved in this journey with him and this new post series will follow our adventures in learning more about robotics, programming and more.

Continue reading Starting From Scratch: Developing Interest

HP Pavilion x360: A Holiday Gift To Myself

HP Pavlion x360 \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
HP Pavlion x360. Image: Dakster Sullivan.

Coming in at 13.12 inches wide, 9 inches in diameter, and 3.7 pounds, the HP Pavilion x360 was designed to be a tablet in disguise. The power button and volume buttons are on the side to make sure you have easy access to them, no matter if you have it in laptop, stand, or tablet mode. The specs are pretty basic for a laptop computer, but it gets high markings in the memory and processor departments.

The AMD A8-6410 APU with AMD Radeon R5 Graphics, 2.00GHz is a 64-bit processor and will run your normal everyday office/internet tasks without issue. I’ve read that it can handle a few older PC games, but not being a gamer myself, this isn’t something I can confirm. I can tell you that with the 8GB of memory, I can run my favorite programs like Manga Studio 5, Office, WordPress, and several others without issues. In terms of ports, the HP Pavilion x360 includes: (2) USB 3.0, (1) USB 2.0, (1) HDMI, Ethernet, and an SD card reader. There is no CD/DVD player in this model, but I’m not really missing it.

The WLED-backlit touchscreen display has a resolution of 1366 x 768 and is crispy clear. Even though it’s a touchscreen, I prefer not to use that feature when it’s in laptop mode. It just makes more sense for me to use my mouse.

Left side ports \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Left side ports. Image: Dakster Sullivan.

One of the cool features of this laptop is the ability to flip the screen 360 degrees. That means you can use it in “stand mode,” most commonly preferred for watching movies, or in “tablet” mode. I haven’t used the stand mode and quite frankly, find it to be rather pointless. I have played with the tablet mode and found it to be a bit bulky in terms of use, but useful for when I need to carry it around my office at work.

Right side ports \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Right side ports. Image: Dakster Sullivan.

This laptop has a major downside for me and that is in the physical design. In my experience, computer designers have this bad tendency to design something that even they wouldn’t want to work on if it breaks. For some reason, the designers of this model decided that it would be a good idea to put everything, including the hard drive, battery, and memory, under the keyboard. That means to get to any of those components, you have to pop off the keyboard to get to them.

The battery being on the inside is the biggest downside, in my opinion. For the average user, that means if you ever call someone for tech support and they ask you to pull the battery and let it sit for a minute, you can’t do it. For me, this is a real pain because if the battery dies, there is that much more work involved to replace it. For the everyday consumer who doesn’t have the skills I have, this will mean more money to pay out for someone to repair it. Something else I’ve realized about the battery is that it doesn’t stay charged as long as the HP Envy that I reviewed this year. I can leave that puppy on for days and it won’t die on me. This one, on the other hand, if you don’t use it or charge it, it won’t stay alive in hibernation for more than a day or so. The way to work around this is to take care of the laptop a little better. If you know your child has a football practice or dance class and you want to be able to work, charge it up a few hours ahead of time.

The memory is not upgradable, but since it already has 8GB to start, I’m okay with not being able to add more.

Look mom! No battery! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Look mom! No battery! Image: Dakster Sullivan.

The 500GB hard drive is nice, but for the most part, I don’t store any files on my laptop. Instead, I save them to one of my many cloud accounts and work from that. With me not saving any of my files to the hard drive, that space will get put to good use with installing my favorite programs like Manga Studio 5 and Office Professional (two programs I practically live in). I work wirelessly 99 percent of the time and have had no problems connecting to the internet at home or at work. In fact, I think this laptop works better than my previous ones, because it finds the wireless network quicker and without me having to turn Wi-Fi on and off to get it to see something.

Since the Pavilion x360 is so small in comparison to my other laptops, I like to use this one as my “go with me everywhere” laptop. I carry it to work, my mom’s house, and pretty much everywhere but the grocery store (and that’s only because I’m not allowed in there…something about buying too much junk food one time).

My bag of choice to carry my Pavilion in is my ThinkGeek Flash diaper bag that I received from a friend for Christmas. I use the changing pad as a makeshift laptop sleeve, the terrycloth burp cloth (AKA “cape”) for a screen cleaner, the insulated bottle holder to keep my cables organized, and the zipper pouch to keep my pens and small change. Even with all that, there is still room for diapers, a change of clothes, and snacks.

Image: Daxster Sullivan.
I’ve let my son hold this laptop a few times and he didn’t seem to have an opinion on it. He prefers larger screens for playing Minecraft and watching videos. In his mind, once you go big, you don’t go back. For me though, the smaller size works because it’s easier to transport than a 15-inch brick. Even if he doesn’t like the size of the screen to compared to other laptops I’ve let him play with, this one sits nicely in his lap without too much overage on his legs and isn’t too heavy for him to carry by himself (of course, I’m right behind him with a pillow in case he trips…to catch the laptop).

Image: Daxster Sullivan.
In summary, the HP Pavlion x360 is a great laptop for parents on the go. The size is perfect for anyone who doesn’t want a brick to lug around and weighs enough to know it’s in your bag—but not enough to make you need a back brace when carrying it around. Of the three modes—stand, laptop, and tablet—I find myself using it in laptop mode the most, but appreciate the ability to switch it around, if I ever want to. I didn’t notice any special software on this laptop and that’s okay, because it means there is less for me to uninstall before I get my feet wet with using it.

The HP x360 line is available at select retailers and starts at around $549.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

How Popular Programming Languages Got Their Names

Zenith Z-19 Terminal. Photo credit: Flick user ajmexico, CC BY 2.0
Zenith Z-19 Terminal. Photo credit: Flick user ajmexico, CC BY 2.0.

Ever wondered why C++ ended up with two pluses instead of one? And why was C even named C? Did the creators of Java have a particular fixation with coffee? Does Python have anything to do with snakes? I was curious myself, so I dug around their history and found a few interesting stories. Read on to find out more! It’s perfect fodder for your next party!

Lisp (1958)

Lisp has absolutely nothing do to with a speech impediment; it actually stands for List Processing. It was created in 1958 by John McCarthy, making it the second-oldest high-level language, right on FORTRAN’s tail. I’ve had friends in grad school who were big Lisp fans and users, so it might be falling out of style—but it’s not yet dead! The joke is that Lisp stands for Lost In Stupid Parentheses, after the language’s parentheses-heavy syntax, but at least it’s not really the case.

C (1969)
Created by Dennis Ritchie at AT&T Bell Labs, C was actually named C because it was the successor of—can you guess?—B! B’s origin is less certain. It could be a shortened version of its predecessor, BCPL, or another unrelated programming language, Bon.

C++ (1979)
C had been the popular language, but PhD student Bjarne Stroustrup saw a lot of potential into bringing object-oriented programming to C. Thus was born a new language called, quite descriptively, “C with Classes.” I’m not sure why Stroustrup ended up changing the name. Maybe someone pointed out to him that C with Classes was a terrible brand name, but changed it he did. He picked C++, with ++ being the syntax in C to increment a variable. Nope, there was no mediocre or abandoned C+ that came in between C and C++.

Perl (1987)

Though some say Perl stands for “Practical Extraction and Reporting Language,” that’s actually a backronym. Perl’s developer, Larry Wall, was simply looking for a short, positive name. It’s nothing more complicated than that. He had chosen Pearl, but it turned out there was already a (less successful) Pearl programming language, so Wall changed it to a more unique Perl.

Python (1989)

The developer responsible for Python is Guido van Rossum, who has remained so active in the development of Python and its tightly-knit community that he is now nicknamed “Benevolent Dictator for Life.” As for Python, it was named not after the snake, but after Monty Python. Van Rossum had been reading the script for the Monty Python’s Flying Circus around the time he was also looking for a name for his new language. He wanted something “short, unique, and slightly mysterious.” Python fit the bill.

Java (1990)
The Sun Microsystems team originally responsible for Java started working on a C++ alternative out of frustration against C++’s lack of automated garbage collection (the purging of system memory usage by the program). The project started out as the Stealth Project, then was renamed to the Green Project. Finally, the project earned an unofficial product name of Oak. Unfortunately, once Oak was ready for prime time, Sun’s legal team ixnayed the name; Oak was already trademarked by a company called Oak Technology. So the Oak team had a very long brainstorming session, throwing out every word they could think of, trying to find a name that would convey Java’s dynamic nature. A short list made it back to the legal team, who approved of Silk (as in web, get it?), DNA (I don’t get it), and Java. They ummed and ahhed as a group until Kim made the executive decision to pick Java just so they could finally move on and get back to work! The rest was history.

*Note: Dates are the origin of the projects, not the official release dates.

Samsung ATIV One5 Stylus PC Review

Samsung ATIV One5 Stylus PC \ Image: Amazon
Samsung ATIV One5 Stylus PC \ Image: Amazon

If you’re a Samsung fan, listen up! The new Samsung ATIV One5 Stylus is something you might want to think about adding to your technology arsenal. With the sleek design of the Samsung Galaxy S4, this computer is just as easy on the eyes as it is on the brain to work. What makes this computer special is the Samsung SideSync software that allows you to sync up your Samsung devices with the PC. You can even view the screen of your Samsung phone on your PC for easy file transferring and typing.

If you’re a klutz like me, you will need a second set of hands to take it out of the box. Once you get the PC out of the box, you will find a wireless mouse, keyboard, and power cables. The bezel does move with the right amount of push so you can adjust the monitor to the right angle.

The AMD A6-5200 processor makes it a force to be reckoned with when it comes to speed and reliability, and with the AMD Radeon HD 8400 graphics card on top of that, you are all set for an amazing PC experience.

This particular model comes with a 21.5″ LED-back lit, high-definition, widescreen with 10-point capacitive multi-touch and built-in webcam. To break that down for you: multi-touch means you can touch the screen with more than one finger and it will respond. The capacitive part means if you try to touch the screen with gloves on, it won’t respond. The more points a screen has, the better the accuracy (10-points = more accuracy than a screen with 5-points).

The screen is really bright, and I love how my pictures look and video plays on it. I could definitely tell a difference between this display and my old monitor that was practically begging to be retired.

The all-in-one design has a plus and a minus. The plus side is that it takes up less space on my desk since I don’t have a tower. Another plus is the two 4-watt built-in speakers. The one thing I was more than ready to get rid of when I got my new computer were my speakers (they were old to say the least). Now that I don’t have to worry about my speakers clogging up my desk, I can put more important things in their place…like action figures (because we all could use a few more of those on our desks, right?)

A minus is that it’s an all-in-one and if something breaks, it’s not as easy as 1-2-3 to fix. I’ve had this PC for 3 weeks now and I’ve yet to figure out how to take the back off to work on it or upgrade the 4 GB of memory to the expandable 8 GB of memory.

Another thing some people might find to be a downside is the lacking in a CD-ROM drive. This doesn’t bug me so much because I have an external CD-ROM I plug-in on the rare occasion I need one for burning music.

As for ports, this baby packs two USB 2.0 ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, a 3-in-1 media reader, and one HDMI port. Since the hard drive is only a 1TB and my music alone takes up about 90% of that, I use one of the USB 3.0 ports to plug-in an external drive for my pictures and such. I prefer it this way, because if my computer dies, I can get my music back from the cloud. I can’t say the same thing about my pictures (I still have a backup in place to cover my bases though).

If you need a few more USB ports, come to the dark side with this awesome Darth Vader hub.

In terms of network connections, it has an Ethernet RJ45 port, Wireless LAN, and Bluetooth 4.0.

Now we get to the part of the review where it’s important to talk about the operating system.

You can’t fault the makers for putting Windows 8.1 on the PC. It’s the most current operating system after all, and while some people find it annoying (a touch screen computer like this one) I’m really enjoying it.

If you plan on letting your kids use the touchscreen instead of the mouse to navigate, make sure you keep some screen cleaner handy (I might start buying it in bulk myself).

Something else I’m enjoying is the parental controls on my 8-year old’s log in. I’m still working out the kinks, but so far I’m happy with the limitations I’ve set and the weekly report it emails me tells me almost everything I need to know about his computer usage. The key is making sure he logs off when he’s done and my husband doesn’t play games or surf the internet while on my son’s log in.

Compared to my old computer, the Samsung ATIV One5 Style is a nice step up. The all-in-one allowed me to clean up our already crowded desk area and free up some space. My son loves the touchscreen capability and the 21.5″ screen when playing Minecraft and LEGO games. My husband is happy with the look and lacking of wires compared to our old computer. Me? I’m looking forward to upgrading the memory to match our old PC and learning how to use the webcam to make video posts.

The Samsung ATIV One5 Stylus pc retails for $799 and can be found at Best Buy stores.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

GeekMom Holiday Traditions: Christmas Light Geekiness

My mom, my daughter, and I make a point every year to take a drive and see some of the wonderful Christmas lights in our area. Times have changed since I was a little girl with my lanky legs crammed in the back of my parents’ cream VW Bug, defogging the window with the sleeve of my Christmas dress to see a pretty string of lights here and there…maybe even a few houses in a row!

Thirty years later, we go cruising in a SUV with heated seats, large windows that defrost, and a navigation system. Though my mom and I inevitably have the same discussion every year of whether using Google Maps on my smart phone or her old paper map will do the better job of getting us to all of the locations, we have our favorite houses that we don’t really need a map to find anymore.

Lights, like so many things, show a household’s personality. Of course, part of personality is geekiness, so watching programmed Christmas light shows is right up my alley. So many houses in our area opting for fancy light shows set to music; we seek these houses out first, so anything else we see is just gravy.

Compare the car to the tree for scale. Gotta love the Pacific Northwest. Image: Cathe Post

Fancy light shows set to music are incredibly geeky. I talked to the owner of our favorite house, down the hill from where my husband works, about how much work goes into making a “show”. He told me that he works about 20 hours a week from January 1 through Thanksgiving to complete the coding involved in a five song set. Yes, coding. Computer language. I start drooling at the possibilities of what we could do…

Kits and equipment are easily available for making your own light show. They aren’t cheap, but the more computer and coding knowledge you have, the cheaper it is to piecemeal what you need together. There are dedicated websites with full kits, Instructables, and WikiHows on how to program light shows for the holidays and make your job easier as well.

Classic white lights found on this home in Vancouver, WA. Image: Cathe Post

As for the gravy I spoke of earlier, we seem to have our favorites: classic white lights outlining houses, red and white lights, twinkle lights, and my daughter’s favorite—lit candy canes—were found in almost every neighborhood we visited. Some houses though, were…a bit much. The term was used, “It looks like Christmas threw up on that house.” It happens. But hey, at least they have Christmas spirit.

This is one of a few houses we felt had gone a *bit too far with the decorations. Image: Cathe Post

We only have one string of lights that work this year, so our house looks a little like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. Next year though…next year…I might just have to get into a coding project with my family.

Happy Holidays!

GeekMom Plays: Mech Mice Episode 1

The GeekMom Plays series features GeekMoms playing video games in a Let's Play style.
The GeekMom Plays series features GeekMoms playing video games in a Let’s Play style. Videos can be found on the GeekMom YouTube channel. Image: VIP and Tim Post

Since my husband and I are playing more video games together in an effort to have a cheap date-night, the kids are pushing our buttons (Controller buttons! Get it?) for games they can play. This week, my 7-year-old daughter (whom I normally refer to as VIP, but has chosen the code-name Jaguar Girl) and I play through a level of Mech Mice online.

Mech Mice is currently in beta. Most of the eight levels in the first chapter are available to play for free during the beta testing period. I am happy that Hyper Hippo, the production company behind Mech Mice, has let kids try out the game before parents are asked to buy it. During beta testing, a Founders Package is available for $20 that purchases all chapters of the game that will be released. The Founders Package will not be available after the game is released October 8.

During our Let’s Play video, Jaguar Girl plays the game while I explain some of the basics. I talk about the turn based tactical aspect of the game, the movement spaces, and how the game will be presented when it is released. Jaguar Girl likes the game and is very happy to play even the easy levels. As a parent, I probably wouldn’t play this game when there are other turn based-tactical games available that are geared more toward adults.

Tune in for more on Mech Mice Let’s Play Videos soon! While you are waiting for the next level of Mech Mice, check out our last (much less kid-friendly) GeekMom Plays: The Walking Dead 500 Days.

Motherboards and Daughtercards: Build a Computer With Your Kid

Girl and computer
Photo illustration by Marziah Karch

My kids are in the kitchen all the time to help cook. Even if they’re just stirring the pancake batter, the early exposure and incrementally increased responsibility helps them understand the basics of cooking. That means they’re not going to be the ones in college that have to call and ask how to bake a potato.

I have the same philosophy about computers. Expose kids early, and expose them to more than just using a computer to run apps. Think of it like learning about baking bread instead of just buying pre-sliced loaves. So when our ancient PC stopped working this winter, I knew that I wasn’t going to build another computer this time. My daughter was.

She was relieved to find out that building a computer didn’t involve soldering.

I could have recycled my old case, but I figured that my daughter’s first build was not going to be on a case with a lot of sharp metal parts. We chose a nice case with plenty of room, cord management, and screw-less hard drive rails. I made the rest of the choices, but I talked through them with her so that she’d see why I chose the way I did.

I really tried to have her do as much of the work as possible. That’s the point, right?

There are a few things, like getting the screws loose on the case or seating the video card that just require some serious muscle power, but she tried to do those things, too. She was a natural at seating the processor, but she had to be coached into getting the RAM installed – as do most first time builders and upgraders. It took me a couple of tries to learn I wasn’t going to break the motherboard when I first started upgrading RAM.

We had to make a second trip to the store to get a DVD drive after everything was assembled. Turned out I couldn’t recycle the one from our old computer after all. Oops. We’d already gone through the process of installing things several times at this point. I handed the new DVD to her with no instructions and asked her what she should do. She replied that she needed to put it in the bay and hook it up to the power and “the brain.” And then she did it. She rocks.

I probably spent more money on that computer than I would have if I’d just shopped around and snagged a cheap refurb, but it is a nice system. More importantly, it’s the computer my daughter built, and that’s an experience that doesn’t come preassembled.

A version of this story originally appeared on GeekMom in January.

Screensters by Toddy Gear: Fun for Kids

Screensters are a fun way to inspire kids to keep their devices smudge-free. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Screensters are a fun way to inspire kids to keep their devices smudge-free. These two are named (from the left) “Biblio” and “Gunnar”. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

If you’re like me, you understand the importance of a clean computer or device screen: It helps minimize the effects of sun glare when outside. And if you’re even more like me, when you see your kids smearing their greasy fingers across the screen while playing Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja, you want to cry inside.

Last month I was excited to get to introduce Toddy Gear’s latest product: Screensters, miniature doll screen cleaners. Portable in size (5″ tall) and easy to hang off of backpacks and doorknobs, the Screenster is ideal for kids. Continue reading Screensters by Toddy Gear: Fun for Kids

Windows 8 for $39.99 — Are You In?

Windows 8 Metro User Interface  Image: Microsoft
Windows 8 Metro User Interface Image: Microsoft

This week, Microsoft announced that most Windows users will be able to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for only $39.99. For anyone that doesn’t usually buy upgrades, that is a significant cost break compared to what it usually costs (around $50 to $100). Now, before you jump on that deal, consider the following:

Something that is known throughout the geek world is to never upgrade your operating system immediately after a new one is released (two words, Windows Vista). The new and shiny aspect of a fresh operating system are tempting for many, but is the benefit of being the first kid on the block with it, worth the hassle of the initial bugs that come with it?

Those who saw the new interface of Windows Vista and thought “ohh, that looks cool” soon learned after they installed it that they were in for a nasty surprise. To this day, Vista is still considered to be one of the worst operating system to ever be released by Microsoft. I remember the strangest things happening to my laptop and even my manufacturer couldn’t help me. Eventually, some patch came out and fixed it, but the initial “coolness” factor was lost after the first few dozen bugs made themselves known.

I will admit that Windows 8 has me curious. I wonder how much of a change users coming from Windows 7 will see as well as the changes an XP user will encounter. The biggest change, at first glance, is the Metro interface. The new interface makes me think of a touch screen computer or a windows phone. If this change feels a little scary, take comfort in the fact that you can switch it back to a traditional desktop style.

Continue reading Windows 8 for $39.99 — Are You In?

Respect Your Parents or They Will Follow Through

image by Cathe Post

You may have heard about this dad who recently punished his daughter through a video on YouTube. Through writers on GeekMom and various social media venues where the event has been shared, I have seen every opinion in the spectrum of possibilities from chastising the father to praising him.

The video was a very timely topic in our house as my husband and I are preparing to hand over my netbook to our almost-6-year-old as part of her Valentine’s Day gift. We have discussed at length what parameters will be set for her when using the computer (out at the kitchen table, ask first, etc.). All of that aside, if and when we allow our kids to use Facebook, they will be required to have Tim and I as friends (not because I don’t trust my kids, but because I don’t trust other people). I would hope my kids would have the sense to either tell me to my face if they had a problem or tell one of their friends over the phone or in person.

The dad was nice enough to work on the daughter’s computer and put money and time into it for her to use in completing school work. The dad found the upsetting status by going to the family dog’s Facebook page – she didn’t block the dog, so it showed up in the feed. Ranting about Facebook’s privacy practices isn’t going to solve anything in this case since the dad wasn’t snooping. If anything, the daughter should have been a little smarter about airing her feelings in a technology-based public arena when her dad works in IT and is working on her computer.

Finally, the shooting of the laptop: I do not own a handgun, but I have been in competitive target shooting. I commend the dad for following through (and, he has responded to his following through on Facebook). He had told his daughter the FIRST time she pulled a stunt like this that if it happened again, he would put a bullet in her computer – and he did! Means of punishment aside, the dad followed through. You have no idea how frustrated I get with parents who let their children get away with stuff by saying, “if you do that one more time, I’ll punish you,” for the fifteenth time in a row. I have to wonder what buttons this girl pushed on her parents to have a parent have to follow through on a threat of this magnitude.

Personally, I would have just password protected the laptop and hid it in my closet with a post-it saying, “You get the password when I get $130.” Good software that was just paid for doesn’t need to be destroyed when it can be used by someone else.

It’s a sad situation all around. Technology is a two-sided coin; it makes our lives easier and harder all at the same time. I’m sure this girl will need a computer to finish school work. Sounds like she’s going to have to beg to use the family computer or huff it to the library. I’ve also seen some opinions wondering if the father just made the video for his own validation and not to punish the daughter, because with destroying her computer, she won’t see the video. Kids have cell phones. She’ll see the video, and hopefully be reminded she needs to follow the rules or suffer the severe and embarrassing consequences. How would you have handled the situation?

Muse of Nerds: College Physics, Innovative Robotics, Homeschooling — Dr. McColgan Can Do It All!

For my Muse of Nerds this month, I’ll formally introduce you to someone I have talked about in the past: Dr. Michele McColgan of Siena College. I met her through our homeschooling group (she has two elementary-aged children) and she has introduced my kids to science, math, robots, computer programming, alternative energy, a Lego Robotics Team…and more than I remember. I first mentioned Michele in this post about soccerbots. And then again about a year-long project our four children worked on with RPGs and robotics.

At the moment, she teaches the general physics sequence to science and math majors, and electronics and optics for physics majors at Siena College, homeschools her two children, runs the Saturday Scholars program for inner-city youth, organizes summer camps in Physics, Alternative Energy, and Robotics, uploads regular YouTube tutorials, mentors Siena’s physics teams to participate in Siena’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, supervises summer research projects for physics undergraduate students, and prepares pre-service physics teachers.

She’s also really nice.

Michele agreed to answer a few questions for GeekMom.

You use robotics to teach physics concepts. How did you come up with this idea?

Before he passed away, I often met with Les Rubenfeld, the founder of RPI’s CIPCE program (Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education.) He was a math professor and was passionate about teaching math with robotics. We would meet at Bruegger’s near Siena and discuss potential ways to collaborate to bring robotics to more students. He suggested that there was more to robotics than just programming the robots to take sensor input and program the robot to respond. He suggested that there was more science to teach. That inspired me to find the physics in robotics. So far, I’ve created robotics activities to teach physics topics including: kinematics (displacement, velocity, and acceleration); measurements to calculate gravity; force of friction; gear ratios for speed and power; impulse; angular velocity and linear velocity; and identification with light sensor data.

What aspect of your work inspires you? (and what are you currently fired up about?)

– Learning new things. I hate being bored. I’m always finding new problems to solve.
– I really enjoy the variety of things that I do. Change is really important for creativity. Revisiting past projects is important, too. Being a physics professor offers opportunities for both.
– Creating fun activities that naturally include science (like duct tape circuits.)
– Creating online resources to allow kids to complete projects at their own pace and allows me to grow my resources.
– Finding ways to show kids that science and math are interesting and fun when you’re solving real problems — not fake problems that someone makes up because you ” should” learn certain things.

Obviously you are a creative person in designing your programs. How can you pass along this creativity to your science and technology students?

I believe in modeling! I like to lead by example. I like to meet students wherever they are. I hate the phrase “you should know that”. I think it’s so important to meet students where they are. Shaming students shuts them down. Encouraging them, whatever their background, allows them to move forward and embrace learning about physics and math.

I think it’s so important for students to take control of their learning. I arrange my classroom and choose activities that require active engagement, not passive learning.

When students show an interest in any of my projects, I do everything I can to support their interests. I give out supplies and let students borrow equipment. I’m interested in their questions and problems and I believe they can do it. I also suggest that learning physics is a journey that takes time and effort. Even if you don’t completely master the material in my classes, that’s okay. Mastery takes time and effort and offers wonderful rewards. I believe that anyone can learn physics – it’s not a field reserved only for rocket scientists. Physics is so rich and covers such a broad range of topics, everyone can find something that’s relevant to them.

Thanks, Michele! And if you want to see even more of what she does, here’s some cool links:

Computer Science Lessons Need to Change

Inside my computer the day it arrived © Sophie Brown
Inside my computer the day it arrived © Sophie Brown

There is a sense of complete wonder at the insides of a computer, and it’s something I find both worrying and surprising. I am of the first generation for whom computers have been standard items in our homes for most, if not all, of our lives. From the day I was born back in 1986, I can’t recall not having a computer in my house. From my dad’s early Apple through an Amiga 1200 to countless PCs and laptops (not to mention many, many video game consoles), I have always had a computer. I can recall the first computer at my primary school: a single computer with a tiny green and black screen that served over 100 kids well. I recall equally well the high tech computer labs of my high school. However, despite the increase in facilities at all schools over the past decades, I fear that computer education is fundamentally failing our children.

When I was at school, we did learn a lot about how to use computers. We were taught how to type, draw pictures in Paint, and use basic software. Later came lessons on spreadsheets, databases, and advanced word processing. These were all useful things to learn that I have carried with me ever since, but they’re not enough. At no point did we ever once look inside a computer. We were never shown what a motherboard looked like or told what it did. We were never taught how to install a piece of hardware – even something as fundamentally simple as installing a PCI card into an open slot.

A few months ago I bought a new desktop computer (our current one had been gradually dying and upgrading the whole system would have cost more than buying new). This left us with that annoying quandary of what to do with the old machine, which although old and with a dodgy hard drive, had many perfectly functional parts left. I harvested the bits that I could use in our new machine, mostly additional USB ports and a WIFI adapter, then dumped the tower under the bed until I could figure out what to do with it.

Last week a message went up on my village’s private Facebook page from a local whose computer had fried: he was seeking new parts. After a few messages, he bought the old one machine from me minus the hard drive and a few other bits and bobs. Whilst I was taking the tower apart to remove the hard drive, my mum called and asked what I was doing. “Oh, just removing the hard drive from our old computer,” I told her matter-of-factly. I may as well have said I was performing brain surgery.

Picture Drawn By My Sister on an Amiga 1200 in 1994 © Sandie Sharpe
Picture Drawn By My Sister on our Amiga 1200 in 1994 © Sandie Sharpe

My mother is probably not the best example to use here as her own computer generally has to be excavated from piles of dumped “stuff” on the semiannual occasions where she decides to check her emails. However her reaction is identical to that which I experience from most people of any age when I mention that I’m happy to mess about inside my computer–utter amazement.

My entire knowledge of the inside of my computer came from my Uncle Jim–whom I watched reinstall a modem back in 1999–that and Google, of course. At this point, nearly every home has a computer in  it, often more than one, yet millions of people couldn’t begin to tell you what goes on inside one. When I took driving lessons a few years ago, one of the subjects on the “syllabus” was the car’s engine–it’s part of the UK driving test. I was expected to be able to identify the radiator, oil tank, and screen wash reservoir, and be able to show how to check my oil  and brake fluid levels, top up my screen wash, and check my tire pressures. These are considered basic skills I should know to be able to maintain my car. Why are such similar “basic skills” not being included in computer science lessons? We weren’t even shown what the Control Panel did!

My Two Year Old Can Already Use My DS to Draw © Sophie Brown
My Two Year Old Can Already Use My DS and iPhone© Sophie Brown

It’s not just the internal mechanics of computers that are being ignored, either. At high school I was taught some basic HTML. When I say basic, I really mean that we were taught: how to add in a picture, link to another page, change fonts and colours…and that was about the limit. At no point did we have lessons about servers and hosting websites.

I went along and asked my IT teacher about those things after school one night and she happily went into details for me but it was never discussed in the classroom. No other programming languages or systems were mentioned–no BASIC, no C, no Python–not even the words were mentioned. We weren’t taught about Flash or JavaScript and I’d never even heard of MySQL until years after I left school. Let’s not get into platforms, either, because at every school I’ve ever attended or visited, it’s been Windows or nothing. Kids these days are well versed in basic IT from a very young age–most toddlers can operate an iPhone or other touchscreen device by their 3rd birthday–so, in my opinion, older kids should be pushed further in terms of the skills being taught at school.

IT is one of the most important industries around the world. The design and maintenance of websites, databases and servers, not to mention security, is fundamental to business, banking, government, and all other sectors–yet we’re not giving our children any insight into this world at school.

It’s difficult to get figures on the IT industry. As Kate Craigs-Wood, a female entrepreneur and co-founder of Memset, put it to me when I emailed her about the subject:

It is hard to get stats on the IT industry because a) government still doesn’t have a good category to put us in and b) we are something of a vertical–supporting other industries more than being one in our own right.

However the figures she hears generally suggest that IT contributes around 10% of the UK’s GDP–and that is not a figure to be sniffed at.

I had two hours of computer science a week at high school for four years. That works out to over 300 hours in the classroom. How is there not time to include this material on the syllabus? The IT sector is dangerously unstable right now. The “dot com” millionaire boom saw people assume that working in the industry was a route to easy money and they flooded in as with any gold rush. I am certainly not saying that learning how to write Python or install a new Wi-Fi adapter is the path to financial success; it simply astounds me that in such an important industry that is so present in all our lives, our children are only being taught how to write a letter on Word.

Steve Jobs Changed the Game for Kids

My daughter tinkering on my G4

I began working in children’s media not long after Steve Jobs returned to Apple. Those were the days of CD-ROMs, when we had to fight those who controlled the purse strings to allow us to make Mac-compatible games even though it was such a small part of the computer market. There was always a sense that they were just a bit more kid-friendly, with the cleaner design to the operating system. Then came the line of candy-colored iMacs, the first computer to stand up and scream “I’M FOR KIDS!”

Then the children’s market started moving away from computers. Leap Frog and other companies were making devices for the living room floor. Companies tried their hand at interactive DVDs and plug-and-play devices. Everyone was searching for that special something.


Practicing counting on the subway

Steve Jobs was the visionary behind that special something. Special somethings, that is. When the iPhone came out, people thought developers were nuts for making apps for kids. There were only a few out there at first, because, really, what parent is going to hand their pristine expensive smartphone to their booger-fingered little kids? But hand them over they did. My daughter was 3 when we got our iPhones. I remember my jaw dropping to the floor when I first saw her swiping through the pages of apps and finding the one she wanted.

It’s a very abstract thing for a toddler to use a mouse. Move the thing on the desk and it moves the little picture on screen. With touchscreen technology, finally there was a direct cause-and-effect relationship between a child’s touch and the screen’s response. Plus you can tilt it, and blow in it, and wiggle it, and shake it to do all kinds of amazing things.

Our little fanboy

Then Apple gave kids that experience but bigger. Again, when iPads came out, people cried that greasy-handed little kids would drop it and break it. And then you see it fits so nicely on their little laps. And the screen is big enough to play with Mom or Dad. There’s also the wonderful sense that the iPhone and iPad are for everything. They’re not just for games or just for learning. They’re not just for watching or for reading. They’re all of those things and more, tied to the power of communication.  They’re also an amazing tool in the parenting arsenal. Would I have gotten through my son’s first year without my daughter being able to independently stream Netflix on the iPad? I’m not sure.

We, the people who design games for kids, need to live up to the promise of this technology. I think we’ve only scraped the surface of the play experience we can give kids using the tools Steve Jobs left behind. Imagine the technology behind Siri in an app for kids!

Steve Jobs, you forever changed my work and my life. You’ve brought my family so much pleasure. For that, iThank You.