Lessons From a First-Time Mini Maker Faire Exhibitor

The excitement in our household was barely containable. Anticipation, joy, and dreams of what could be all radiated from the two geeks who live with me.

What caused such enthusiasm, you ask? Was it Christmas? Someone’s birthday? An anniversary, perhaps? The new Star Wars movie?

No, my friends. It was the announcement that Barnes & Noble, in partnership with Make Magazine, was going to be hosting a Mini Maker Faire at every single store location in the U.S. Continue reading Lessons From a First-Time Mini Maker Faire Exhibitor

Cardboard STEM: 25 Ideas for All Those BOXES

There’s no escaping the cold, hard truth: Children love to play with cardboard boxes.

As parents, we’ve all experienced this cardboard-fueled phenomenon. It’s almost become an old adage: He played with the box more than the gift.

With the holidays on the horizon, there will be oodles of boxes to contend with especially if, like myself, you prefer to do your holiday shopping online in your jammies. And, as the holidays draw near, the to-do list increases. There are gifts to buy, presents to wrap, gatherings to organize. If your home is anything like ours, it can be tricky to get all the things done with children underfoot. Unless, of course, you have a plan.

And have I got a plan this year! This plan is sure to keep your children engaged and learning and provide you with some uninterrupted time to tackle that mounting must-do list. This plan requires your kids to get creative and to think outside of that proverbial box… while playing with all those cardboard boxes that are strewn about your home just waiting to be recycled. Continue reading Cardboard STEM: 25 Ideas for All Those BOXES

Combating Geek Prejudice… But Not the Way You Think

“Mom, I know I need to wait for Dad to help me with my math homework.”

“Mom, you’d never be able to build this Lego set.”

“Mom, you’ve never coded anything?!”

All of these are things my amazing 10-year-old future engineer has said to me.

She really doesn’t mean to hurt my feelings. She’s just calling it like she sees it. Her dad, her idol, is an engineer. They design stuff, build stuff, talk deeply about science-y stuff, and code stuff. My day job is in marketing and I don’t do any of that stuff. 

And frankly, I haven’t done myself any favors, talking about how confusing her math algorithms are to me (this is not a Common Core post, but it’s true fact that I do not recognize how to do long division anymore), how I’m “not into” building things, how I’ve never been interested in coding.

But it does hurt my feelings when she writes me off because the things I know are different from the things she and her dad know.

And most of the time, they’re not as relevant or valuable to her, because the things that are relevant and valuable to her fall very reliably into STEM and sometimes STEAM. There’s no “H” in there for humanities, which is where my particular strengths lie (I tried, but SHTEAM just didn’t work).
Continue reading Combating Geek Prejudice… But Not the Way You Think

The Dreaded G-Word: When Your Child is Asynchronous

I remember that morning as if it had happened yesterday. We were just leaving the restaurant, where we had enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with friends. I had met these women when we’d had our first babies, at a mothers’ group sponsored by the hospital where we had delivered. Those first babies were now 5-years-old and each had at least one younger sibling.

We held the door for one another and shuffled our tribe carefully out of the restaurant and into the parking lot. The kids were busy fooling around, and their laughter filled the air until one voice shouted above the rest. I knew that voice very well: It was my 5-year-old son, Leo.

“Hey! GUYS!! LOOK!! LOOK!!!! Doesn’t that latticework remind you of a portcullis? It’s SO BEAUTIFUL!” Leo shouted. He was jumping up and down, bursting with excitement, pointing toward the restaurant’s garden.

His friends paused for a moment, looked in the general vicinity of where he was pointing for a second or two, and then carried on with their play. I, too, looked at the trellis and then I grabbed my phone and Googled portcullis. Continue reading The Dreaded G-Word: When Your Child is Asynchronous

‘Covalence’ Game: Cooperative, Educational, Chemistry Fun

I love cooperative games because the dynamics of the group shift from finding any possible way to beat the live humans hanging around with you to exploring all possibilities within a game system to triumph together.  I also appreciate educational games that keep the fun.

Is it possible to have all three in one?

Why, yes, and the game is called Covalence: A Molecule Building Game recently put out by Genius Games. This is the latest in their series of science-based table-top games.

How does it work?

Covalence uses deduction. Continue reading ‘Covalence’ Game: Cooperative, Educational, Chemistry Fun

Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge: And Back to School We Go

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 4.45.14 PM

Image: Scholastic

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

5 Word Book Reviews (or less)

Here are the books that rocked my kids’ summer.

Get in on the Instant Win Action

Image: Energizer

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

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

Refrain from Brain Drain

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

More Reading Resources

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


Scholastic is a GeekMom sponsor.

Common Sense Graphite: Quality Educational Resources

Image: Common Sense Graphite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Reasons You Should Volunteer for FIRST

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

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

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

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

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

FIRST Definition

What specifically is FIRST? From the FIRST website:

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

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

FIRST Programs

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

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

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

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

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


But why should you volunteer? Consider these 5 reasons:

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

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

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

Microsoft YouthSpark: Learn to Code

DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft
DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft

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

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

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

Kodu. Image: Microsoft
Kodu. Image: Microsoft

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


DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft
DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Microsoft Imagine Access
Get free programming software here.

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

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

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

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

We Day Empowers Youth to Take Action

Photo: Jenny Bristol
Photo: Jenny Bristol

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

That event is We Day.

What is We Day? Their website says it best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Math: All You Need Is Games

Image By Rebecca Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What games does your family play that teach math concepts?

Panasonic 3E Convertible 2-in-1 Is Built for Education

Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

For those who prefer a high-tech classroom, Panasonic, along with Intel and Microsoft, has created a purpose-built computer for the K-12 education market. It won’t keep kids stuck in the classroom, however. It’s extremely portable, even having a carrying handle, and is intended to be brought out into the field to look at things in nature and study the world.

“Anywhere, anytime learning for the student-centered classroom.”

Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

The Panasonic 3E Convertible 2-in-1 is a useful tool for students. (The 3E stands for “Engage, Empower, Enable,” which mirrors my educational philosophy completely.) It is a fully functional Windows 8.1 machine. The keyboard is small enough for students’ hands, but large enough to accommodate them as they grow. The detachable 10″ tablet works well on its own, and can also be turned around and reattached to the keyboard, allowing for tablet use while keeping all the pieces together. The tethered stylus is easy to use, nestles securely, and charges in just 20 seconds while in its nook. Use it to tap, draw, take notes, etc. The computer comes with educational accessories, such as a temperature probe and a magnifying glass, the latter of which snaps into the rear-facing 5MP camera to allow students to see things up close.

This thing is certainly built for education. Between the accessories and the machine capabilities (such as the gyroscope, magnetometer/accelerometer sensor, cameras, and microphone) and the installed software, kids are encouraged to explore. On their own or under a teacher’s guidance, students can use these devices for almost any school subject. Lessons in science, art, multimedia, research, and more are easy to expand using the 3E.

From the press release:

Designed from the ground up for the K-12 market, every aspect of the 3E was conceived to encourage inquiry-based learning, to boost engagement and nurture analytical skills that will help students succeed in STEM subjects. The device is also able to alleviate teacher anxiety by empowering them to deliver personalized learning for students while maintaining whole group instruction.

This isn’t just a case of putting technology on top of learning. These machines are designed with learning completely integrated, and they encourage students to use their imaginations, using computers as a tool for learning. The machines will expand students’ learning environments and opportunities, not restrict them.

Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

The tablet’s touch screen is especially useful for kids, who need to explore and dive into their content. Whole classrooms can use these devices, and they are also able to integrate into a larger classroom system.

The machines are spill- and dust-resistant, and are extremely durable. They can withstand a 70 cm drop. You know your kids will drop this thing, and bang it around. Panasonic made sure it would withstand that kind of use.

The devices have a variety of I/O ports on the side, protected by a door, and the tablet can keep a charge for eight hours. The keyboard can extend that time three additional hours.

The software included on the machine is useful for many educational purposes:

  • ArtRage Studio – Plenty of options for art creation.
  • Foxit Reader – A multi-format ebook reader in which students can also make and name their own bookshelves within the program.
  • Kno Textbooks – This comes with a few samples, but is designed to be used with textbooks that you purchase, or have access to through school.
  • Lab Camera – With this program, students can use the magnifying glass, do time lapses, do kinematics, use the motion cam, or treat it as a microscope, universal logger, pathfinder, or graph challenge. With the magnifying glass, students can put something directly up to the glass. They can then save or print photos, plain or with measurements on them.
  • Media Camera – This program allows students to make media, either in Presenter or Recorder format.
  • SPARKvue – Software to run something akin to Power Point school lessons, from what I can piece together. The computer also comes with a “Folder for Experiments” which includes several example experiments, including ones that demonstrate how to use the accessories. Students interact with the pages to complete assignments.
Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

What did I think of the Panasonic 3E?

I liked it very much. My 13-year-old daughter took to it right away, making herself at home and experimenting with all of the functionality. We tried things mundane and unusual, and determined that it’s a pretty solid product. It’s the kind of thing that I would choose for my kids to use in our homeschooling: fully functional computers that aren’t at all restricted by location or purpose.

Some observations of note:

  • If you don’t get the tablet portion clicked into the keyboard portion well enough, the tablet can fall out. Make sure it clicks in well.
  • Since you have to open the I/O port cover to plug in headphones as well as anything other than the AC adapter, we worry that the hinge will wear out quickly.
  • Some of the keys are a bit small, but that’s a good fit for students.
  • The keys are a bit slippery.
  • There are two vertical line/slash keys. This extra key makes the left shift key a bit small for my taste.
  • The tether for the stylus seems to get in the way a lot, whether the computer is opened or closed.
  • The slot in the tablet that holds the stylus is pretty secure, so confident users could consider removing the tether.
  • It’s a good idea to have a pouch for the magnifying glass and the temperature probe accessories to protect them and keep them from getting lost. Use a big enough one, and the AC adapter will fit as well.

In summary, the Panasonic 3E 2-in-1 convertible computer is a well-matched choice for students, at least through middle school. Whether your school system invests in the whole Panasonic Education shebang, or just several units for students, these are solid machines that will take what kids throw at them. Since they are Windows machines, they are completely compatible with systems that are already in place.

For a full set of specs, visit the spec sheet on Panasonic’s website. For more information on getting the Panasonic 3E, visit Panasonic’s website or email them at educationsolutions@us.panasonic.com.

Note: GeekMom received a unit for review purposes.

Kids Talk Science

Image By Rebecca Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 25 is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day: An Education

Image: ShaylaStrong2009.weebly.com

My son started kindergarten this past fall, and it has been an education. From love letters to girls, to bullies, to hot-versus-cold lunch, every day is a new and exciting adventure. Then there is the fact that I am exposed to a whole new range of five-year-olds and parents, outside the realms of my own offspring. One of his classmates has Cerebral Palsy, and as today is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day, it seemed about time to share my education.

So what is Cerebral Palsy? If you had asked me pre-kindergarten, I would have mumbled something about a wheelchair, maybe about limited movement. For a condition that affects 17 million people worldwide, I knew remarkably little. Yet still, my description would have been in the ballpark, if not hitting a home run. Cerebral Palsy is a physical disability that affects movement and posture. In fact, it is the most common physical disability in childhood. This information sheet from Ideas for Change has been key in informing me about this disability.

Infographic courtesy of Ideas for Change.

I have to pause every time I look over those associated impairments. One in three is unable to walk, I see that. One in 10 has a severe vision impairment, okay, understandable. Three in four experience pain? How is it possible that the scientific understanding of Cerebral Palsy, its prevention and causation, remains much the same as it did 50 years ago, when 1 in 303 children in America are affected, and of those children, three in four experience pain. I know more about which kinds of lunchmeat and shellfish to eat on my third pregnancy than I did on my first, but we haven’t made any breakthroughs in Cerebral Palsy in 50 years. I’ll say it again, three in four experience pain. This blows my mind.

But beyond these statistics and black-and-white images of what it can look like, there is the human aspect. To my son, his classmate is just one of the girls. To be honest, he’s a little envious of the wheelchair. I don’t worry about how he interacts. Adults, on the other hand, may need a few tips.

Infographic courtesy of Ross Feller Casey, LLP.

So what can you do today? Find a local need and support it, write to the NIH and CDC to request that they add line-item funding for research (there currently is none specified), and share these infographics. But more than that, speak directly, speak normally, and relax.

Kalk: A Card Game That Makes Math Fun!

Image: Kalk (Used with permission)

I was cruising Kickstarter the other day, as one does, and I came across something unexpected among the plethora of games and comics that I usually love to back. It was a math game.

Now, math is on my mind a lot these days. Both my son and I learn math almost organically. Workbooks are like tedious torture to us, because we need to see the math in action. So I have been looking for ways that I can help him learn in a way that makes sense to us. We’ve had a lot of fun with Math Dice and other games like that.

Kalk might just be the next math game in our library.

After watching their Kickstarter video (which does an awesome job at explaining how the game works) and talking with designers Tommy and Jonathan a bit via email, I could tell these guys were both enthusiastic about their game and passionate about sharing a love of math with everyone, even those who have a hard time with it. I took the opportunity to ask them a few questions about their game, so hopefully others could share in their enthusiasm.

GeekMom Mel: What inspired you to make Kalk?

Jonathan: When I was young, my mom and I used to go on the street and she used to ask me to sum up car’s license plates, after a while it became easy and she challenged me to get to specific numbers by using + – x ÷, just like our goal number in Kalk.

GMM: Why math? Do you have a special relationship with the subject?

Tommy: Jonathan is more into math actually, but we both created this game in order to bring math to kids and parents in a cool and fun way, so everybody will like it, like we do!

GMM: What do you think makes Kalk different?

Tommy: Kalk is a very simple game. It takes less than 10 seconds to learn how to play. This was one of our challenges in creating something simple, yet challenging and inspiring. You can actually choose the difficulty by adding more cards, playing with our magic cards, or choosing your competitors.

GMM: What do you think is the funnest part about math, maybe something that even people who hate math can appreciate?

Jonathan: The funnest part in math, in our opinion, is the ability to solve things in different ways. It always amazes us how creative our minds can be! For example, we are posting several challenges during the week on our Facebook page, and it’s always fun to see people solving our riddles in different ways.

Image: Kalk (Used with permission)

GMM: Were you good at math growing up?

Tommy: Jonathan was really good! He’s like a little professor even though he doesn’t admit it. He used to help me in school, but it didn’t help that much. However, since Kalk was created, my math skills got better. Jonathan still wins ⅘ of the times! :)

GMM: Tell us a little about the process of designing your game. What was the funnest part? Which part was the hardest?

Jonathan: The design process of Kalk was very cool! Me and Tommy used to play Kalk long before we launched the project. Back then, I started to imagine how it will look. The hardest thing I did was to design the right numbers that will look clear, fun, and appealing to both kids and parents. The funnest part was to print the first pack of Kalk and playing it for the first time!

GMM: Do you have any advice for parents who might have kids who struggle with math?

Tommy: We would suggest to go really slow with it, for some kids (like me!) it doesn’t come naturally. Try to make math more like a fun riddle, or a challenge and less like just an assignment.

Image: Kalk (Used with permission)

GMM: Anything you’d like to add?

Tommy and Jonathan: We would like to add that we are really excited about this project and hope we will fund it within 20 days. It will be much appreciated if people could help us spread Kalk to the right people because unlike other “cool” projects on Kickstarter, those educational projects are a bit behind.

We really care about kids’ education these days, and believe that Kalk is a part of the solution with all the crazy technology games that you can find today. We miss sitting in the living room and play cards with friends.

We have created Kalk because we think it’s time to exercise our brain and reinforce our math skills (… and hopefully yours too!).

Best of luck with your Kickstarter campaign, Tommy and Jonathan. This looks like an awesome game, and I know I’ll be backing it!

For more details, or to back the Kickstarter, please check out Kalk‘s campaign!

Fund This: SkyMath Delivers Math Adventures on the iPad

Tracking Pixel

Image: Circumventure Learning
Image: Circumventure Learning

There’s no arguing that technology is redefining the way we, and our children, learn. We have all been there, scouring the App Store in hopes of finding just the right app to help our kids with a particularly difficult subject in school, and being inevitably disappointed in the outcome. Just because it’s a game doesn’t mean it’s fun—and just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s actually helpful. That’s where our sponsor, SkyMath, comes in hand.

SkyMath is a math program on the iPad that wants to leverage the power of learning apps and videos that are already out there to help your child master even the most challenging math concepts at the K-5 level. But don’t go thinking this is a run-of-the-mill math app on the iPad. Its entire approach is markedly different. The dedicated team behind SkyMath started in the most important way: they focused on creating a math experience that’s engaging and measurable.

You can see from SkyMath’s Kickstarter page, and in the app itself (for those of us lucky enough to get a sneak peek), that the artwork is stunning. SkyMath takes your child on a learning adventure, and every island has a different silly theme. Your child even gets to choose an adorable character to go on the journey with (my son chose the Otter as his player character).

Reward (1)
Real time rewards. Image: Circumventure Learning

The first set of islands serves as a placement test so SkyMath can figure out where your child is in math. With that information, the app creates a personalized learning path that’s tailored to your child’s math level. Parents will love how each island represents a math skill that their child needs to work on and the curated third-party apps and videos on each island really take the guesswork out of figuring out which apps are going to be the most helpful. With the number of recommendations available, the chances are good that your child will find the right apps and videos that he or she will love learning math with.

Throughout all of the gaming and practicing, SkyMath keeps track of the progress your child is making. Once your child has practiced enough to pass the post-test on each island, SkyMath moves your child on to the next math skill to work on. This focus on measuring growth and progress is a huge part of what sets SkyMath apart.

Which brings one of the most important aspects of the app into focus: incentives. Digital incentives are hard to grasp. For me, a mother of a high-functioning autistic child, finding the incentives that work (jellybeans) and the ones that don’t (long-term goals) is a big deal. But by tying real-world incentives that the parents can control in the app, the kids aren’t waiting for some digital happy face. They’re making real progress in the real world that you can celebrate with your child. Depending on your situation and your child, you can scale it from the small (those jellybeans again) to the large (trip to LEGO Land, anyone?).

Children are curious. They’re smart, too. They just need to be engaged and motivated most of the time. And a sad majority of apps out there really don’t take those concepts into consideration. SkyMath does. Built on careful attention to detail and a deep understanding of how children learn in the digital–and physical–world, I’m confident that SkyMath can make a real impact.

SkyMath’s Kickstarter campaign is going on now. Head on over to their page and make a pledge.

This post is sponsored by Circumventure Learning.

Should We “Dilute the Kool-Aid” When Answering Kids’ Science Questions?

Do you dilute Kool-Aid? Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Do you dilute Kool-Aid? Photo: Patricia Vollmer

In celebration of my 4th anniversary writing for GeekMom, I present to you my very first post, published January 22, 2011:

When I was little, I remember my mother making Kool-Aid. I have old pictures of me wearing my token Kool-Aid mustache. I even had a Kool-Aid t-shirt. I remember sometimes the Kool-Aid would seem, well, watery. Did my mom dilute it on purpose? Boy, I hope she didn’t. Sometimes, I wondered if she was sneakily reducing my sugar and artificial color. I remember telling myself that when I got older, I would never dilute the Kool-Aid!

But guess what? While I do my best to make the Kool-Aid at home to the recipe, I have to admit I water down the kids’ lemonade and fruit punch at the fast-food restaurant beverage machines. It’s just instinct, I WANT to dilute!

This diluting of the Kool-Aid is now a metaphor I’ve given to the crime of watering down — or dumbing down – answers to the questions kids ask. GeekMom Jenn posted about the incessant “Why? Why? Why?” questions she receives from her kids and in her line of work. My kids do the same thing, and sometimes it grates my nerves for sure! But embedded in all of the silly mindless “Why?”s is a jewel of a question that my sons are truly curious about. And when my just-as-geeky-as-me husband or I hear such a question we want to stop and give it our full attention!

And if it’s a science or math question? Stop EVERYTHING! Break out the props!

My husband and I had a great professor in college who has such a pet peeve about “bad meteorology”, he made up a website dedicated to debunking several of the most-basic of meteorology myths. A quote he said that has stuck with my husband Dave all these years was, “Be very careful what you put into kids’ heads because it’s very hard to get it out!”. We take this very seriously with our kids.

So when our sons asked “Why is the sky blue?”, our approaches to the answer might be a little different than non-geek parents. For a pair of meteorologists with offspring, we waited for that very question with bated breath, as if it were a milestone like learning to walk or ride a bike!

In our house, though, the question ended up not “Why is the sky blue?

It was “Why are sunsets red?

We got it when our oldest son was about 6 1/2 years old. Definitely a corollary to the dream question! So I’m now going to share with you how we geek parents approached this subject.

Sunset over Lee-on-the-Solent, Great Britain. © Copyright Rebecca Altman and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons License. http://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/1963

We started with rainbows. Our son knew the colors of the rainbow by this point, so it was easy to explain to him how red is at one end of the rainbow, and violet is at the other.

Then we discussed the electromagnetic spectrum. Enter a basic diagram, with the shortwaves on the left, the longwaves on the right. Our son could name many of the parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as X-rays and microwave radiation. We explained how red light has longer wavelengths than blue or violet light.

Our firstborn started getting a little glassy-eyed here…uh oh, it doesn’t get any simpler from here!

We attempted to quickly sum up how the low sun angle at sunset allows sunlight to travel through more of the atmosphere. The color red is able to “scatter” just as readily as the color blue “scatters” when the sun is higher in the sky. When the sun is higher, most of the atmosphere’s scatterers are receptive to the color blue. This is a phenomenon called Rayleigh Scattering. I fear we might have lost our boy by this point, but it was interesting seeing how much he did pick up from the conversation.

I remember that it generated more questions about the electromagnetic spectrum and I was so impressed with having a conversation with a 6-year-old about how many things in the world around us are traveling in “invisible” waves. The music on the radio. The remote control (or the 8-billion remote controls) in our house. The microwave oven. The wireless internet in our house. The satellite television.

Check out these links for other easy-to-understand explanations of sky color.



We, as parents, are challenged with teaching our kids the “right things”. Or at least, what we think are the “right things.” Sometimes those “right things” are contested topics such as evolution, global warming, or the causes of the Civil War. I hope to have an open enough relationship with my kids to discuss the varying viewpoints about those more controversial topics and give them the tools to form their own opinions, even if they might differ from mine.

But when it comes to math and science, I personally feel challenged to push the envelope to teach as much as I can when my kids express interest. I hope to never blow off one of their “Why?” questions, although I have to admit that can get tough at times!

GeekMom Mel Chats With Kyle Hill, Science Editor of Nerdist

Kyle Headshot 10
Photo: Nerdist Industries

I don’t know about you, but there is nothing I love more than to read about science that’s presented in an entertaining and digestible way, especially when it pertains to topics I geek out about anyway, like comics and video games. When I got the opportunity to interview Kyle Hill, the science editor for Nerdist Industries and host of Because Science, I almost fan-girled. Kyle is kind of what I want to be when I grow up…some day. No, not a Chris Hardwick lackey—though that does seem like it would be awfully fun. I’d love to be able to spread my passion for science and how things work, explain the hidden stories behind the seemingly mundane, and make sense of things that seem so much bigger than us. But Kyle Hill does it in a much more engaging way than I ever could.

At least, I’ll concede that point for the purposes of this article.

GeekMom: What spawned your interest in science, and what made you want to teach others about it?

Kyle Hill: I’ve always liked science and the natural world. I’d be that kid playing with LEGOs or trying to catch bugs to stare at them. My parents were very supportive of that kind of outlook, taking me to museums and buying CD-ROMs (remember those?!) about dinosaurs. After high school I went right into an engineering program and starting blogging for myself. Sometime before I finished my degree I figured out that I liked talking about science and explaining it more than actually doing it. During my graduate program I started submitting articles to Scientific American, and things sort of spiraled upwards from there.

GM: Can you tell us a little about how Because Science got started?

KH: From a logistical standpoint, working with a brand like Nerdist means producing quality digital content, so a video series was probably an inevitability. But personally, I’ve always wanted to do something like Because Science. I find that actually talking out loud about what you are trying to explain helps you understand it even better yourself. And I do. A lot. So that combined with my over-caffeinated delivery was a good foundation for a show. And since I find myself saying “because science” to justify my nerdery a lot, the name was obvious.

GM: What would you say to someone who says they are interested in, say, space, or how things work, but they don’t feel they are “smart enough” to pursue any knowledge or research?

KH: Our educational system seems to have a hard time dispelling the “science is too hard” stereotype. I’d bet that if you talked to our best scientists, they’d say that this passion for a subject is the most important part; working out the homework comes later. Science at its core is a systematic exploration of how the natural world works, and we are all ingrained with the curiosity to ask the same questions that science does. Don’t let this “ivory tower” facade that science has scare you off. It’s fascinating first.

GM: What is your favorite topic? What really gets you geeked out beyond measure?

KH: I love physics, especially where it lets you talk about power and energy and explosions! Physics is one of those fields that most people have an intuitive understanding of—whether or not they know the math, we have a good idea how things are supposed to move and interact. So when I can say that a punch from a “Pacific Rim” Jaeger is like having a 747 hit your face, it’s immediately understandable, nerdy, and accurate!

GM: What do you think is the most important thing a parent or mentor could do to get kids excited about science?

KH: It’s hard to say what the most important thing would be, but I’d say listening to a child’s interest first has to be up there. Children are naturally curious, and you can build and foster that curiosity by introducing them to the science that explores what they love. A love of the night sky, of insects in the grass, of a computer whirring away, these can be bolstered by introducing them to the people, books, and videos that let them get deeper involved. Let children explore, and give them the tools to help them explore better.

GM: Have you ever had any science misadventures? Has science ever gotten you into trouble?

KH: Well, there are things I’m aware of—physics and chemistry-wise—that I know I shouldn’t try. I try to steer clear of possible explosions as a rule. But when I was a kid collecting insects, I unknowingly forced a pretty gruesome situation. One day, I collected three monarch caterpillars in the park near my house. I put them all in a carrier and waited for them to metamorphize into beautiful butterflies. But I didn’t give them anything to eat. After the first caterpillar attempted to change, the other two climbed up to where it was and ate it alive. It was pretty rough. I wasn’t trying to run a caterpillar fighting ring. Feed your pets.

GM: If a younger person (or heck, even an older one!) wanted to be Kyle Hill when s/he grew up, what advice would you give?

KH: As my friend and fellow video-maker Joe Hanson (of “It’s Okay to be Smart”) says: Stay curious! I’m not a scientist, and I’ve never taken formal writing classes. I have a background in science but I’m not an expert. Any success on my part is from trying to stay perpetually curious, and seeking out the information that will help me get my passion across while being accurate. That means taking free writing courses if you’re not a writer. It means staying up to date (I am on the Internet *constantly*) and taking science communication seriously. And don’t ever think that you are being too nerdy!

GM: What is your favorite source for science news?

KH: It has to be Twitter. I have a pretty hefty RSS feed, but I use Twitter to keep track of the writers, creators, and scientists that I like directly (not institutions or brands themselves). Social media is a great way to stay in touch with the people that inspire and inform you, and for the most part they are happy to engage with you! Start taking notice of who seems to be writing/filming/speaking about all the stuff you like or are interested in and check up on them. Chances are they are still producing great content.

GM: Anything exciting in the works that we can look forward to?

KH: The beauty of the digital age is that you never quite know what comes next. Currently I’m writing and making videos, but there is certainly room for more science-y goodness in the future. TV spots? Maybe a podcast? If it has to do with science and geeking out about this universe, I want to try it!

GM: Thanks so much for talking with us here at GeekMom, Kyle! And all of you, be sure to check out Kyle’s show, Because Science, over on Nerdist!

Kyle Hill is a science writer and communicator based in Los Angeles, California. He received his Bachelor of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Marquette University, and his Master of Arts in communication from the same university in 2013. In 2013, he started writing for Scientific American, finding a niche in the intersection of science and pop culture. Since then, his nerdy work has been published in WIRED, Popular Science, Slate, and The Boston Globe. He has appeared as an expert on Fox News, Al Jazeera America, and Huffington Post Live. And he has held writing positions at Nature Education and Discover Magazine. Kyle has worked as a TV science correspondent for Al Jazeera America. In 2013, he was named one of the top 20 science communicators to follow by WIRED magazine and is currently the Science Editor of Nerdist Industries and host of Because Science. His goal as a science communicator is to use popular culture to teach science in a fun and digestible way.

Science Literacy: Statistics Shmatistics

Photo on 11-12-14 at 11.11 AM #2
Image By Rebecca Angel

“It’s science’s dirtiest secret: The ‘scientific method’ of testing hypotheses by statistical analysis stands on a flimsy foundation. Statistical tests are supposed to guide scientists in judging whether an experimental result reflects some real effect or is merely a random fluke, but the standard methods mix mutually inconsistent philosophies and offer no meaningful basis for making such decisions.”
Odds Are, It’s Wrong: Science fails to face the shortcomings of statistics

Read the whole article; it’s very good, and makes my head spin. If we can’t trust statistics in science, what is the basis for drugs being approved by the FDA, or the stated risks associated with everything my teenagers do, or how much pumpkin pie can I really eat before going over my daily limit of recommended fat?

That article was written in 2010, which you may think is old news, but How to Lie with Statistics has been around a very long time. That’s a book on how statistics can be used by companies, politicians, anyone with an agenda, to manipulate people with “hard facts”—a.k.a. math.

To be fair, Siegfried’s article is not about scientists purposefully fudging numbers, but how they generally don’t understand how to organize their data properly. They’re not bad guys (like certain advertisers), but still misleading the public because they don’t know what they’re doing. Maybe that’s worse.

So what can we do? How can you teach your children to understand the numbers thrown out in the media? Reading that the percentage of the U.S. population that will get the flu, on average, each year is between 5% and 20% on WebMD doesn’t mean much unless you understand how average is calculated (mean? median? mode?), what was the sample size, and maybe most importantly: who funded the research to get the data?

That last question may be a tough one to find. But understanding how statistics work, and how they can be manipulated, is doable and important. First, you might want to brush up on the knowledge. You could read Stephen King, but for something more encompassing, you need to stretch your brain. And no, I’m not talking re-reading the mind-numbing statistics textbook from college somehow still in your basement.

The free site Udacity has an  accessible and comprehensive statistics course (my sixteen year old is taking it right now). There’s also The Manga Guide to Statistics, reviewed here, and the popular series take on it: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Statistics. I like that one a lot.

The resources above are good for teens and adults. For the younger set, it isn’t hard to bring up how statistics work because they are everywhere, everyday. Next time a percentage of something is thrown out as evidence to do, or not do, (buy, or not buy), explain to your child what that number means, and how it could have been manipulated. Make them aware that just because math seems straightforward, using statistics may not be.

To make it fun, have them conduct a survey with their family and friends. It can be about anything (“what’s your favorite pie?” at Thanksgiving, for example.) Your job is to help them word the survey to get simple results. Then, help them make some fun graphs and play with their data. That hands-on manipulation is the best way to learn. I did it with my own kids. We asked people about tea! You can check out all our fun graphs here.

Hopefully, by the time they become scientists, their understanding of organizing data will be enough to trust their research! Especially if that research tells me I can eat all the pumpkin pie I want. Let’s all become more science literate by understanding how statistics works.

Today’s Total Lunar Eclipse in Pictures

After reading GeekMom Melanie’s post about this morning’s lunar eclipse, I was motivated to get up early and rush out the door with my camera to take pictures. By the time I got to a local park near my house in Fuquay-Varina, NC, the eclipse had just started to cover the moon. I immediately set up my camera with tripod and started taking pictures while enjoying the show.  I hope you enjoy this series of pictures.

5:36 a.m.

Lunar eclipse. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

5:47 a.m.

Lunar eclipse. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

5:59 a.m.

Lunar eclipse. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

6:13 a.m.

Lunar eclipse. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

6:34 a.m.

Lunar eclipse. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Hacker School Offering Grants to Diversify the Programmer Demographic

Photo credit: Hacker School
Photo credit: Hacker School

You may have heard that there’s not a lot of women in the programming industry. In early 2012, Hacker School—think of it as a 3-month immersive retreat where programmers can hone their craft—announced a partnership with some leading software companies like Etsy to offer ten $5,000 grants for women who wished to attend.

Hacker School wanted to diversify their student body, and over the last couple of years, they have managed to increase their female student body from 5% to 35% through these grant programs. Today, Hacker School announced they are pushing the definition of diversity to include other minorities that are under-represented in programming: African Americans, non-white Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. They want their students to be a better representation of the demographics of America.

I had the chance to chat with Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock, who co-founded Hacker School alongside David Albert and Sonali Sridhar. Nick explained why it was important to Hacker School to see more diversity in their student body, and I think the same logic very much applies to the benefits of seeing a greater diversity in any workplace.

The first reason why Hacker School is committed to seeing this change happen in their demographics is that their top goal is to build an environment where people feel safe and comfortable to expose their ignorance and learn through it. A big part of that is making sure no one feels alienated, whether that may be due to their gender, skin color, socio-economic status, or ethnicity. The second is that, at Hacker School, so much of the education comes from students learning from each other. If every student came with the same background, it would be a much less viable experience. The more diverse Hacker School becomes, the better the experience.

While Hacker School is actually free, they understand that living near the school’s location in New York for three months is anything but. Something that has changed over the last two years of grants is that they also offer an option, not only to apply for a grant, but to specify the amount you would need to make this experience possible considering your financial situation, from $500 to $7,000.

The grants available for the next year of students has been made possible mainly by Etsy, Juniper Networks, Perka, Betaworks, Fog Creek, and Stripe. Of the money donated to Hacker School for the grants, 100% goes directly to the people who need it. It should also be mentioned that Hacker School takes it seriously that every applicant be judged based on the same standards, the bar isn’t lowered for women or minorities or applicants requesting the grants. They automatically create a pseudonym for applicants so that the people reviewing them are not influenced by the gender or ethnicity of the name. There may be other information in the applications that reveal these details, but it helps the reviewers remain unbiased and really focus on the applicant’s qualifications and code.

If you are interested in applying to Hacker School, they work on a rolling admission so you can apply at any time. If you are accepted, you may be able to attend your preferred “batch” (each 3-month group is called a batch) or, if that batch is full, you’ll have the option to select another batch. Good luck!

Microsoft YouthSpark Continues to Provide Technical Skills and Education

Image: Microsoft

You might not have noticed, but Microsoft is busy doing more, these days, than just purchasing Mojang, home of Minecraft. They are also continuing their dedication to youth education and promotion of technical skills.

Microsoft YouthSpark, launched two years ago, provides opportunities to 300 million youth around the world. (Check out the YouthSpark Hub, where you can see the opportunities available.) Now they are boosting other initiatives as well.

* The TEALS program (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) is putting software engineers in 131 high schools across 18 states plus the District of Columbia as volunteer computer science teachers. This almost doubles the numbers of participating schools from last year, aiming to better meet the needs of students interested in learning computer science.

* YouthSpark summer camps held at Microsoft retail stores will continue throughout the school year for K-12 students. For examples of how this helps the youth of today, some of the students are sharing their stories.

* Imagine Cup, a student technology contest, is continuing next year with the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2015, open to students 16 and older. Imagine Cup is designed to encourage scientific youth to help solve some of the world’s most difficult problems. All participants channel the Imagine Cup theme of, “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.” The contest began in 2003, and now has participants in almost 200 countries. John Booth wrote about the contest on GeekDad last year.

* For students around the world who aren’t fluent in technology, Microsoft is also expanding their Digital Literacy Curriculum to more languages, increasing access.

And, of course, Microsoft has acquired Mojang. I have high hopes for what they will do with Minecraft. If they can develop even more educational programs surrounding the oh-so-popular sandbox game, without affecting its base functionality and appeal, I will be one happy homeschooling mom.

Note: As part of the Windows Champions program, I have been given the use of Windows 8.1 devices. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the company’s initiatives.

Tiny Hands Apps Puts the Joy of Learning in Toddlers’ Hands

Image: Tiny HandsAs the mother of two kids in a very tech-connected geek household, apps are often on our minds. Which is why I’m so excited to share Tiny Hands Apps, our sponsor, with you.

Our daughter, the youngest, is only two. And while she’s fascinated with the iPad and certainly wants to use it like her brother does, there’s not much out there that caters to her. Generally speaking, it’s too complicated for her—and to be honest, I don’t just want to throw her the iPad to keep her busy when it’s not something that’s helpful for her.

That’s where Tiny Hands Apps comes in. Tiny Hands Apps are designed with toddlers in mind, from top to bottom. They’re educational and fun, and go beyond being just apps—really, they’re developmental apps. Everything is designed with a great deal of thought, not just a bunch of bright colors and sounds. In fact, Tiny Hands Apps are put together with certified child psychologists and produced in such a way to be exciting and interesting but never compromising on the content.

Even better? There’s no ads. No pop ups. No network access. Your littlest curious kiddos are free from the advertising crush that we so often see in games. It’s a gateway to learning without interruption.

Image: Tiny HandsA great example is Tiny Hands Raccoon Tree House. Your toddler sees a friendly raccoon character, and a story to go along. But you’ll know that it’s far beyond that. Tiny Hands Raccoon Tree House includes sorting, classifying, hand-eye coordination, concentration, vocabulary… and so on.Image: Tiny Hands

But that’s just the beginning. The world of Tiny Hands Apps is full of bright and colorful fun, learning about the world and all that’s in it.

We all know that it’s almost impossible to avoid technology—and we certainly never would want to. But we always want to make sure that we’re delivering the best quality to our children, both appropriate and exceptional. If you have a toddler who’s ready, we can’t think of a better place to start than Tiny Hands Apps

You can see the full lineup of Tiny Hands apps at the iTunes store, and follow them on Facebook, too.

This post is sponsored by Tiny Hands Apps.

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Building the Future with Lego Space

LEGO Space: Builiding the Future \ Image: No Starch Press
Lego Space: Building the Future. Image: No Starch Press.

All kids go through learning phases where they just can’t get enough of a particular topic. For my son right now, that topic is space and what better way to learn about it than through Lego? That’s where Lego Space: Building the Future by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard comes in.

I was really excited to check this book out because: 1. My son is really into space and I knew he would love it; and 2. it puts the topic in a way that will not only teach my son, but also inspire him to get creative with his own Lego bricks.

The book doesn’t so much tell the real history of space as much as it tells it’s own story. The first 10 pages are filled with some history, but after that, the book goes its own way and takes some creative licensing. Throughout the story, the authors take some time to stop and show you how to build what you are seeing. I thought this was a neat aspect of the book, because my son already wanted to build what he saw, so this gave him a head start.

LEGO Space: Builiding the Future Sample Page \ Image: No Starch Press
Lego Space: Building the Future sample page. Image: No Starch Press.

The only downside to this book that I can tell is the price. I showed it off at my son’s science fair night and the first thing the librarian and his teacher did was note how expensive it must be. Considering the quality of the photos inside and the fact that’s a pretty hefty size, it doesn’t surprise me that it costs $24.95 retail.

Lego Space: Building the Future has inspired my son to put down the video games and instead got him to focus on his much-neglected Lego bricks. I’m not kidding when I tell you that he spent hours building space stations and looking over the book for ideas. A few times, I would hear him get really excited about a particular fact and he would read it out loud with enthusiasm that I’ve only seen when he’s in a theme park.

If your child is into Lego, space, or both, I highly recommend Lego Space: Building the Future. It might be a bit more expensive than other books, but in my opinion, it’s well worth it if it gets my son reading.

Lego Space: Building the Future is available on Amazon for $19 (hardback) and $12 (kindle).

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Hobby or Career?

Image by Rebecca Angel

For the longest time, my son was only interested in two things: games and Lego. Then we participated in the Science Olympiad, and he randomly chose astronomy as one of his study topics for the team. We found some books on basic astronomy, and he studied. My father heard about the topic of choice, and sent a season of The Universe on DVD.

By the time of the test, my son had become bored with studying the facts of astronomy, but was completely inspired by the DVDs. He would watch episodes with a friend of his and they would discuss the many ways Earth could be destroyed, or the true nature of a black hole. We found more interesting books for him to read like The Pluto Files and Death by Black Hole. His love of astronomy grew.

Could this be his career path? Astrobiology, the study of potential life on other planets, became his focus. There is a college program at our local university. Bingo! Although games and Lego are fun, I was starting to worry about how that might apply to getting a job in life. I looked into any local astronomy things. How could I foster this interest in a fun way?

This past school year, he was an intern at The Dudley Observatory. To be accepted, he had to write an essay, and have a recommendation letter. This is a great program. He was given a telescope of his own, and was expected to learn how to use it. He attended as many star parties as our schedule (and the weather—it’s very cloudy around here) allowed, there were specific education evenings for the interns, and he heard a few talks through the local chapter of the Amateur Astronomy Association. Plus, there were always people to chat with about the latest episode of Cosmos.

A highlight of the program was attending a star party at a local school, setting up his telescope with the other interns, and helping the school kids find different constellations. My son is shy, but he was happy to share what he knew, and to see younger kids excited about the stars.

We live in a city, amongst trees, so taking his telescope outside our house is rarely gratifying. But sometimes we can get a cool view of the moon.

Image by Rebecca Angel

Last month we visited his grandparents who live on a farm, far away from anything. It was a gorgeous night. The moon hadn’t come up yet, and the stars were just amazing. Through the telescope, we were able to see four moons of Jupiter, the Orion Nebula, Beehive Cluster, and everything else my son could remember.

The program is officially over, but his mentor invited all the interns to continue to attend the AAA meetings, local star parties, and of course, keep using their telescope. I recently asked my son what he thought about the program, what he learned, and his interest in astronomy.

“I realize that I really like astronomy, but studying all the facts and details isn’t as fun as just looking at the stars and talking to people excited like me. I think I want this for a hobby, not a career.”

Sigh… I’m not sure what this kid is going to do. But better for him to realize something is a hobby and not a career now, rather than after going into debt with a degree he won’t use. I just signed him up for a video game creation camp, also an area of study at our local university. We’ll see.

LeVar Burton’s New Kickstarter Brings the Magic of Reading Rainbow to Classrooms

Image by: RRKidz

For the current generation of young parents, Reading Rainbow was a seminal part of our childhood and education. And it was free.

Two years ago, LeVar Burton’s educational technology company RRKidz launched a Reading Rainbow tablet app to try and bring all of that rich material to today’s kids. The app has hundreds of books and brand new educational video field trips, and it is wildly successful with more than 12 million books read and videos viewed to date. But unless you have a tablet you can’t have the experience.

It’s hard to believe that not all of today’s young kids know every word to the theme song or recognize that bright Reading Rainbow sticker on a library book. LeVar Burton wants to change that, and he wants to make the impact even bigger.

Starting today, he is launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million dollars to expand the modern digital Reading Rainbow program to the web. While the program will be available to kids at home or even their public library, it will be specifically tailoried to classroom teachers and homeschoolers. The new program will have a teacher dashboard, educator-created supplemental materials designed to Common Core standards, and many more books.

The most impressive goal of the program, however, is to create a non-profit program to help subsidize the cost. RRKidz wants every child to have access to these materials, making it completely free to the most disadvantaged schools.

When I was sixteen, I saw Mr. Burton on television at a Congressional hearing to discuss budget cuts to public television programming. He spoke with such passion and knowledge about childhood development and the important role these programs played that I wrote a letter to my local PBS station to share how public programming helped shape my education. The letter was published in PBS magazine; I still have my framed copy, and I still recognize the value of what those entertainers, educators, and media makers gave to this generation of parents.

So I’m donating to this Kickstarter to help bring that experience to all of today’s kids. If you’d like to donate as well, watch the video above and then visit the Kickstarter page here.

Explore Space With LittleBits

Image from http://littlebits.cc

This week littleBits announced the results of their partnership with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center when they announced the latest in their line of product kits. The littleBits Space Kit for Earth and space science explorers contains powerful electronic modules, coupled with projects and activities designed by NASA scientists and engineers.

“With the days old discovery of earth-like planet Kepler-186f, SpaceX’s successful docking at the International Space Station, recent evidence of the Big Bang, and the introduction of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new Cosmos documentary, space is more than ever at the center of the cultural conversation,” said Ayah Bdeir, littleBits founder and CEO. “Yet our relationship to space remains distant. With the littleBits Space Kit, we aim to bring space closer to home by putting the building blocks to invent, learn and explore directly into the hands of educators, students, NASA enthusiasts and builders of all ages.”

Founded in 2011, Ayah Bdeir created littleBits with one sole mission, to turn everyone into an inventor by putting the power of electronics in the hands of everyone. LittleBits breaks down complicated electronics into powerful modules to make it easier to “play” with the electronic components without worrying about soldering or wiring. The Space Kit added an additional three modules to the littleBits product line, an IR LED, number counter, and a remote trigger.

I’ll admit when I opened the box I was surprised that these 12 tiny pieces could create the advertised rovers, satellites, and radar dishes that were described in the five lesson plans and ten hands on projects.  Boy, was I pleasantly surprised!

Having studied electronics in college, I am very familiar with the amount of work that goes into planning a circuit and time that it takes to create a working project.  However, within minutes of opening the box I was able to light LEDs, play MP3s, and play with waveforms.  The Space Kit lessons are specifically designed to teach scientific principles such as electromagnetic, kinetic, & potential energy. As a STEM educator, I thought the ease of use was unparalleled. Each module is completely contained and modules connect via metal magnets that act as connectors between circuits. I had a friend’s ten-year-old daughter come over and she was able to follow the carefully designed lesson plans and blissfully play with the set as you can see in the video below, playing with sound wave forms.  She loved it!

As impressed as I am with this kit, learning that it retails for $189 really surprised me. The only thing that stopped me from buying this, and every other littleBits kit, is that high price point. For less than the price of a single littleBits Space Kit you can buy a massive educational kit from a comparable modular circuits company with more than 80 pieces and close to 175 written lessons.

Image by Helene McLaughlin

For more information and to purchase the littleBits Space Kit visit: http://littlebits.cc/kits/space-kit.

Earth Day Activities for Kids

Our home. www.nasa.gov
Our home. Image: www.nasa.gov.

Earth Day is just a few days away. Here are some hands-on activities to do with young kids to help them gain a better understanding of the environment, and help them have a more genuine Earth Day celebration.

Plant a Seed

Somewhat cliche, but planting a seed indoors can be a great way for kids to connect with the environment. The fact that a plant, flower, or tree can grow from a single seed is truly amazing. The sight of a sprouting plant never gets old for kids and adults, alike. Ask your child what kind of seeds they would like to plant, or try following these steps to sprout an apple seed from a finished apple.

Make a Terrarium and Learn About the Water Cycle

What goes up, must come down—and the same goes for our planet’s water. Water from rivers, lakes, oceans, and streams evaporates, condenses into clouds, cools, and falls back to earth as rain. Human industrial activity can produce pollution that changes the acidity of rainwater. Rainwater that is too acidic can kill freshwater fish, and even erode mountains. Making a terrarium and observing the water cycle is a great way to exemplify that pollution in our air can come back down to land trapped in rain, and cause secondary damage to the earth’s landscape and its ecosystems.

Kids will enjoy making and observing a terrarium. Image: www.nasa.gov.

Grab a jar and send your child outside to collect a layer of pebbles, sand, and some dirt, then moss, grasses, and leaves. Add water, cover the jar, and place it in a sunny spot. Observe condensation forming over the next few days; you can even take the lid off and see droplets on the lid. These droplets will fall back down and water the plants, and the cycle will repeat. Watch the plants inside the terrarium thrive. Talk with your child about what would happen if the water was toxic. Would the plants survive? To observe this, make another terrarium, and this time add a water and vinegar solution. The acidic vinegar dissolved in the water will have a lower pH and can mimic acid rain.

Take a Walk and Make a Journal 

Whether you live in a city, the suburbs, or the country, plants and trees are blooming this time of year. Take a walk and try to see how many different types of plants you can identify. Take pictures of ones that are unfamiliar, and try to identify them later with the help of books and the internet. When you get home, make a drawing, painting, or clay sculpture of some of the plants you saw on your walk.

Make a Worm House

Kids probably hear the word “compost” thrown around a lot this time a year, and at Earth Day celebrations. Observe a homemade worm house for a few weeks, and your kids can gain a greater appreciation for why composting is so important and how it works.

Making a worm house can be a great way for kids to observe how composting works. Photo by Cristen Pantano
Making a worm house can be a great way for kids to observe how composting works. Photo by Cristen Pantano.

When we throw our food scraps into the garbage, it ends up in the landfill. Americans produce 34 million tons of food waste each year. Landfills are airtight, so while the food will rot, it will be anaerobic bacteria that will break the food down. This process gives off methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Alternatively, no methane is produced when food scraps are broken down by aerobic bacteria and invertebrates in soil.

Take a jar or clear plastic container and fill with layers of sand, dirt, and soil. Dig for worms and add them to the dirt. Spray the top soil layer with water, then add dying grass, leaves, carrot peels, or even cornmeal. Cover with tin foil, poke holes in the tin foil, and place in a cool, dark area of your home. Watch over the week as worms mix the layers and eat the organic matter. Eventually, all the matter will be broken down by the worms and bacteria in the soil, resulting in a rich soil. You can continue to add food for the worms or set them free. If you keep your worm house for over a week, make sure to spray with more water.

Once your child observes how worms break down organic matter, add a piece of plastic to the top layer. Can the worms and bacteria break down plastic? Could anaerobic bacteria in a landfill break down plastic? If not, what happens to non-recycled plastic?

Draw a Food Web

Drawing out a food chain, or food web, is a great way for kids to see how plants, animals, and human activity are all connected. Photo by Cristen Pantano.

Have your child pick their favorite animal, find out what it eats, and then draw a food web together. All food webs start with a green plant and end with a top predator. Any disruption to the growth of the original green plant can affect the whole chain. Additionally, any negative affects on the habitat or well being of one of the animals in the chain can also disrupt the chain. After you have drawn the chain, talk about how human activity can affect each step in the chain. What if chemicals kill the plant? What happens if some of the animals live in trees and the trees are all cut down? How does urban sprawl affect animal habitats? How can global warming and pollution affect these food chains?

Do a Little Garbage Day Math

Americans produce 251 million tons of garbage each year. Screen capture from www.google.com
Americans produce 251 million tons of garbage each year. Screen capture from Google.

On garbage day, go outside with your child and count how many garbage cans are on your block waiting to be emptied. How many gallons of garbage does each can hold? How many gallons of garbage were taken from your block that day? How many gallons of trash does your street produce in a month? In a year? This exercise can be a great way for kids to visualize exactly how much waste we as a society produce. The importance of reduce, reuse, recycle might have more meaning after this exercise.

Write an Earth Day To-Do List

Ask your child what Earth Day means to them. What do they want to do to help the earth?

Have fun, and happy Earth Day!

Why Librarians Matter

Photo on 4-15-14 at 2.24 PM
Image By Rebecca Angel

Picture a librarian. Is this person a woman? Gray hair in a prim outfit? Stern?

Now imagine this librarian at work. Are they checking out books? Shushing children? Recommending old fiction because they are in love with Mr. Darcy?

If this is what you think of librarians and their job, you obviously haven’t been into a library for decades. Not all librarians are women, prim, or mean.

You probably can’t imagine needing a librarian anymore with that magic device in your pocket that connects to our human collective knowledge, and the sphinx known as Google that answers all questions—sans the riddles.

In fact, even regular library patrons rarely speak to a librarian, instead using the online catalog to order books and pick them up at leisure, being checked out by a clerk (no, the person at the desk scanning your books is rarely a librarian) and returning them in the convenient slot outside the building.

Although, the part about Mr. Darcy might be true, the rest is an outdated stereotype about a much underutilized and important job in our communities: my hero—The Librarian.

First let’s talk about the language. Librarians are part of the Information Science field, and it is the single most important field to be aware of in our world that has a glut of information that our computers CANNOT yet process, organize, and make available to those who need it most, now. Search engines are getting better everyday, algorithms are being written, but the human mind still has no equal to understanding relevance in data.

Information scientists are publishing papers on a range of topics because they find connections in seemingly disparate sets of data. These connections lead to original theories and discoveries that would otherwise be lost in the ever increasing mound of research. You can read more about this information overload in my interview post, The Half-Life of Facts.

Second, you should know that librarians aren’t just in your local community library doing story time. Businesses, law firms, research centers, all need someone to help make sure their data is collected and organized in a way so their workers can get access to the information they need quickly and efficiently. The IT person isn’t trained for that. The secretary isn’t trained for that. A librarian is.

Librarians have master’s degrees in Information Science—GASP! Yes, they are more than just lovers of books (although that is usually the initial drive to get into the field). Besides learning about the latest technology, the archival skills to keep the original sources intact is a huge importance. It’s great that the film of Goddard’s test flights for rocketry have been put on YouTube, but the original footage MUST be preserved! Why? Who knows what is coming next in technology? Will we be always able to access the formats of our current computers? Right now you can’t access old webpages because of outdated technology. To keep this vast collection of knowledge, the genuine articles must be preserved by trained archivists—AKA: librarians.

Librarians are keepers of freedom. In America, we hold our freedoms quite highly, but there is constant pressure to restrict access to what random groups considered wrong, corrupting, or evil. Most people can agree that burning all books but those approved by Hitler altered German society to create a state of hate. But what about banning The Wizard of Oz because it depicts women in strong leadership roles? Where is your line? Librarians keep access to all books, believing everyone has a right to information and to our history. There’s even a banned book week.

When the Patriot Act was passed back in 2001, there was a part that allowed the government to search through the library’s files on patron’s book choices. To protest this, my local libraries did the only thing they could—stopped keeping the files. Now no one can see (including me) what books I have been reading. It is only in light of the recent NSA scandal that the rest of the nation has woken up to this freedom of privacy issue that librarians protested from the very beginning.

Librarians give you access. You may believe you can get your hands on any information if you look hard enough, but that is not true. My husband is a geneticist and talked to me about how his graduate students in the lab were struggling to find relevant published articles for research. They all needed the university librarians’ help. First of all, the students didn’t even know how to begin. The librarians found out their topics and could point them to the correct science journals (there are many, many, specialized journals you’ve never heard of). And then, most importantly, they granted the students’ access.

Many scholarly journals have no public access. This means they will not appear on any searches, so you have to know they exist, and then get permission to read them. Whether you agree or not with this practice, librarians are the gatekeepers to higher education research.

Media Literacy is sorely needed right now, and librarians are the ones to teach it. It may seem normal that our little ones aren’t good at finding the right search words, but older students have poor research skills as well. Mostly this is because true research is not about looking up information and spitting it back out “in your own words.” Instead, research is finding various kinds of information and drawing connections to form original theories and creating something entirely new with it. How do you figure out how to do this? Hopefully from your school librarian at the early stages of learning. Unfortunately, this is a much under-appreciated position in schools today.

There was an interesting exercise by Karen Gross, President of Southern Vermont college, with high school students. She concluded, “Information is not the problem—it is how to think about the information that counts.”

But let’s go back to your local, friendly, community librarian. What the heck do they do everyday? And why do you care? Just watch your child try to do a web research on any topic and be aghast at how terrible they are at coming up with relevant (and correctly spelled!) search words or phrases, going beyond the first one or two hits they find, actually looking at the whole page they are given, how easily they accept what is on any website, etc. It’s enough to make you want to bang your head against the wall. That’s how librarians feel about most people making life decisions based on poor research. All you have to do is ask for help! But you don’t know you need help.

When I asked Allison, a librarian friend, what is the most important and under-appreciated aspect of her job, she said, “Three words: The reference interview.” This is when you go ask a librarian in real time (in-person or online) for help with a search. A good, trained librarian can then ask you the right questions to tease out exactly what you need, which is often not what you originally asked. A machine can’t (yet) understand shyness, embarrassment, common misconceptions, low-education issues, and anything else that gets in the way of asking the right questions. But with a simple chat, a librarian can help you find what you truly are looking for. Use them!

My son had a similar comment about this post, “I want to talk to a nice, real person about books. Then after awhile, they know me, and can recommend things I wouldn’t have thought to try.” And that’s why I believe (and Neil Gaiman too) that librarians matter!


Kindergarten and Herd Immunity

Ontario Ministry of Education: Copyright Expired.

This September, my precious baby boy starts kindergarten. While he is jumping up on the bed excited about it, I cry myself to sleep at night. He is busy practicing writing his name and making a list of things he would like in his lunch box. I am trying to convince my husband that I should quit my job and be a stay-at-home mom for the next few months.

There’s a lot of paperwork to do when sending your child to school for the first time, and there should be. But there are things I never anticipated, like the media release form. If my son happens to be photographed at athletic events, concerts, performances, or graduation ceremonies, his image is fair game. But I have to agree that his “name, picture, voice, or statements” be used by the district and school websites, as well as by any authorized outside media. I get the choice, and I so agreed. It makes perfect sense, but my 1986 registration was primeval in comparison.

They want to know what language we speak and if we speak many. I didn’t ask if Klingon counted. They want to know if we are migrant and if we process dairy or cotton on a regular basis. They want to know if I went full term and what his birth weight was. They want to know if he had Osgood Schaltter Disease, to which I said, “Huh?” They need a day-by-day account of where the bus should pick him up and drop him off, and who is allowed to do that. All of these things are wonderfully necessary, but they don’t calm the pulse rate as I prepare to loosen the apron strings.

And then there’s the one that gets GeekMom buzzing, sets the internet on fire, and raises more controversy than John Travolta’s Oscars gaffe.


I wasn’t too worried about this. I believe in medicine and our doctor’s education. My kids get all the vaccines that are currently available and recommended. Nicely spaced out, they have kept many a fear at bay in my mind. But now my boy is going to be in a school with 660 other kids whose parents had to fill out this paperwork. And they got asked the same questions and given the same choices I did. Like this for example:

Non-Immunized Students:
Non-immunized students are not permitted to attend school unless one of the following conditions is met:
(Please check the applicable)
___Parent/legal guardian provides written assurance the student will be immunized within 90 days.
___Parent/legal guardian provides a written statement from a physician stating that immunization against one or more diseases may be medically inadvisable. (Required each year.)
___Parent/legal guardian provides a written statement that immunization is contrary to their sincere religious beliefs, or that he/she is opposed to immunization for philosophical reasons. (Required each year.)

Hmmm, so this herd that my baby is joining may not be as immune as he. This herd may not be quite what I thought. I’m not too worried about this, but I did check with some lawyers, and the main point of me mentioning this here today is to share this little fact with other kindergarten-starting GeekMoms who might be wondering.

You are allowed to ask if anyone checked these boxes.

You are not allowed to know who, you are not allowed to see anyone’s documentation, and you are not allowed to speculate with staff. You have no rights to any files and you have no rights to details of conversations regarding this. But you are allowed to say, “Hey, there are 660 kids here, any of them not get vaccinated?” And get just a number in response.

Now I’m not looking to fearmonger and I’m not looking to judge anyone’s beliefs. I don’t want to praise my own method of parenting over anyone else’s and I by no means have all, or any, of the answers to this lifelong gig we have engaged in. But, just so you know, you have the right to know how healthy your herd is, and that’s all I have to say about that.