Kickstart Your Kids’ Confidence in Math with MathKit

Of course you read books aloud to your kids often, but have you ever thought about setting aside time to cuddle and solve math problems together?

Leslie Gilbert, a math teacher and creator of MathKit, has created a collection of games to show kids that math can be a fun way to spend family time—and give them the confidence to keep trying and learning, even when they get a problem wrong.

MathKit is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to get the kits in the hands of kids from kindergarten to third grade. My first grader and I recently had the chance to check out the games ourselves.

After a rainy day playing together, my daughter declared, “This does make math fun!”

Continue reading Kickstart Your Kids’ Confidence in Math with MathKit

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?

Kids Won’t Shy Away From Geometry in ‘Land of Venn’ App

Image: Land of Venn Geometric Defense, used with permission.

I fall short in the math area of STEM. I hated geometry in school. I can’t repeat on this site the words that come to mind when the term trigonometry is used. When my daughter comes home with requests to work on her math facts, I go to the computer and look for an app that will help her. At this point, it isn’t because I’m afraid of the math, it is because I am afraid that my dislike of the 4-letter word will rub off on her, or worse, I will teach her something incorrectly and ingrain a bad example that will serve as the seed for so many math lessons to come.

This said, the newest app in my anti-math mom arsenal is called Land of Venn Geometric Defense. The characters have such interesting and unique names, I would not do it justice in explaining the purpose of the game, but their video pretty much tells you everything:

There is a lot visually happening in this app. Some of the platform bits move, but are not interactive which makes it challenging to tap and drag the correct thing at times. Sometimes there are so many things to tap and drag that a tablet is a preferred surface to make geometric shapes on. Especially if you are an adult playing this game, it’ a good idea to drag out the tablet unless you want the added challenge of a small screen and adult fingers. On a phone, another obstacle is potions (when you get them) that take up room in the bottom of the screen and cover up bad guys, taking precious time away from making your geometric shapes of villain destruction. In later levels, quadrilaterals are requested for ultimate destructive power against the juice-stealing varmints. Again, adult fingers on a phone screen aren’t the best combination for achieving a 3-star rating on a level.

straight line
They call it a straight line, I call it a line segment. What do you call it? Image: Land of Venn, used with permission.

My only observation about the geometric facts the game presents is a technicality, the shortest distance between two points is a line segment—but for kids, this is not a necessary point (pun intended).

The video above features most of the intro video to the app. It took me several times through the video on a tablet and phone to understand the thick accent in the opening scene. Once I heard it on the computer, I understood. Thankfully, I didn’t need to understand the video to play the game. It is mainly for flavor.

Minor complaints aside, this app is much easier for kids to handle with their tiny fingers, and they hear things better on average than us deaf old fogies. My kids couldn’t wait for me to finish my testing of the app so that they could give it a try.

The Adventure Time-like art is amazing. The game features crisp lines which aids in making the game playable. The areas shown in the game are beautiful. It, like other cartoons of the same style, is a little gory. Some of the attacks used on the invaders send knives out of the ground into the offending parties. It is a little graphic, but I don’t have a problem with my 5- and 9-year-old kids playing the app.

1st world levels
After the ten areas are completed, the arch at the top becomes a mini game to test the players retention of the shapes they made in the game. Image: Land of Venn, used with permission

The game has three areas to complete with ten levels in each. Each area ends with a gate that unlocks after each type of geometric shape is correctly identified. I really like this part of the game. It adds a different way of learning and adds repetition into the game without the player really noticing. The test was a nice break from the mad tapping. After unlocking all three gates, I was looking for more.

Originally, the game was only available in the App store for $4.99. It has expanded to the Amazon store and is available for $0.99. An Android version will be available after a few bugs are worked out in Beta testing (I ran through beta testing on my Samsung. After an initial download issue, the game played beautifully on the device, so I am hopeful the game will be available to the public soon). The development team is very involved with fixing any issues and has listened to feedback to produce a superior app for kids learning.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Odd Squad: Warehouse 13 For Kids

© 2014 The Fred Rogers Company

Pete Lattimer and Myka Bering best move over; they have been replaced by a younger crew.

Agent Olive and Agent Otto are the stars of Odd Squad, a Canadian/American show that debuted in Canada and on PBS Kids on November 26, 2014. My sons discovered it about a month ago. I have to say, kids, grandparents, and parents alike are all enjoying the escapades of this quasi-governmental agency.

© 2014 The Fred Rogers Company

Odd Squad is an agency run by children, who seemingly stop aging at age 10. They investigate strange or odd phenomenon, as the local branch in their town. It is unclear whether this is a localized oddity, such as Sunnydale’s hell mouth, or if such oddities are nationwide.

If you open your mouth and start barking instead of talking, Odd Squad can help. If a swirling vortex appears in the park, Odd Squad can help. If pizzas across town are being delivered with two pieces missing, Odd Squad can help.

Sometimes the storylines are well suited to a kids show, but most of the time they could be easily adapted to Warehouse 13, The X-Files, or Once Upon a Time without skipping a beat. There is some excellent writing at work here, and some very innovative, creative minds. Each episode starts with a quick fix case before moving into the main storyline.

The show frequently nods its head at mainstream shows that have come before it. The transport operator is always O’Malley, O’Hare, O’Brien, O’Donohue, or something of the like, in seeming reference to Chief O’Brien from Star Trek: The Next Generation. There is an episode featuring animals called Centigurps, who populate headquarters like Tribbles. The storage facility, in which they store artifacts, animals, or other oddities that need to be contained and collected, is remarkably reminiscent of Warehouse 13. It’s a lot of fun watching for allusions and references in these episodes. Things that my children will never pick up on, but that tickle me to no end.

Ms. O © 2014 The Fred Rogers Company

The show has great writing and a great atmosphere, but also a great lineup of main characters. This really sets Odd Squad apart from other kids’ shows. The two main characters are Agent Olive and Agent Otto. Olive is the veteran, while Otto is her rookie partner. They play off each other nicely, and bring out the best in each other. Olive is the more straight-face agent, while Otto serves well as a foil. Their strengths play off each other, and the cases are solved best when the pair are working together.

The head of the organization is Ms. O. Ms. O has been around since the 80s, and rules Odd Squad with a big stick and an even bigger voice, but always with a juice box in her hand. Ms. O is obviously a homage to the Judi Dench years of the James Bond franchise, and it is wonderfully played. Ms. O has the answers to the most obscure problems, and is always several steps ahead of her agents. She trusts them implicitly, but will not tolerate running in headquarters.

Agent Oscar is the squad’s resident scientist and inventor. He has a gadget for everything—and I do mean everything. Olive and Otto go to Oscar whenever they need technical help, and he is usually sent to the field by Ms. O to assess a situation that the other agents can’t handle, such as the Hydraclops or the vortex.

Dr. O © 2014 The Fred Rogers Company

The cast has a great gender and racial balance, and so far stays far away from playing up to stereotypes. In one scene, Olive, Otto, Oscar, and Dr. O are fighting off robots in the princess room. Olive and Dr. O send Otto and Oscar out of the room, and retreat to the door backwards while firing at the robots. Olive proclaims “I never liked princesses” and Dr. O concurs. It’s a really well played scene. Just when you think they are going to kowtow to some form of stereotype, the producers subvert it, make fun of it, or make it irrelevant.

Dr. O is Odd Squad‘s resident doctor. She is a very eccentric character with great problem solving skills. She frequently reminds the other agents, “I’m a Doctor,” and while usually I might chaff against a girl character reminding us of that, in no way does it come across as negating her value. It is a personality quirk and simply amplifies her eccentricity. Nothing in this show belongs to the boy characters and nothing to the girls, and it is a wonderful to see and to have modeled to my two sons.

Odd Squad uses math to investigate strange occurrences and to come up with solutions. This is the only part of the show that feels laborious to the adults watching. However, both of my kids count and add along with Olive and Otto, and it has really made a dent in my five-year-old’s indifference to math.

The show also teaches perseverance and teamwork. It frequently goes over the idea that it’s okay to go through several wrong solutions on your way to finding the right one, a big believer in trial and error. The episodes always start with a voice-over by Agent Olive: “My name is Agent Olive. This is my partner Agent Otto. This is ____.” The third thing shown on the screen is always something random, that never has anything to do with the storyline that follows. The best one so far has been “This is Emmy Noether.” It is wonderful to think of how many kids (and adults, ahem) then looked up Emmy Noether, whom Einstein described as the most important woman in mathematics. This show uses math, but it shows how everyone can use math and how important it is.

So far my favorite episode has been episode 21: “6:00 to 6:05.” In this episode, we learn the dangers of confusing 6:05 with 1:30. It features the dinosaur storage facility at Odd Squad headquarters, a time machine, and a girl’s passion for toy dinosaurs. Absolutely brilliant.

My son’s favorite episodes are anything involving a character called Delivery Doug, who delivers egg salad sandwiches in his egg mobile. It’s what’s for lunch in our house these days.

You can watch Odd Squad online at or PBS Kids during the week. Each episode is made up of two 11-minute adventures and the show is aimed at ages 5-8. We stream through our Roku channel.

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!

Geek-twisting Holiday Songs

Image By Rebecca Angel

Oh, who wants the same old boring lyrics to our holiday favorites?  Altering words to existing songs is a playful, challenging, and creative endeavor. It’s the fan-fiction of music. Winter and Christmas tunes are so well-known, it’s a great place to start. Here are some people who have already done so with a geeky twist:

The Twelve Days of Future Christmas created by Bridge 8, goes through a list of current science topics that are on the verge of becoming reality! “12 drones delivering…”

(TUNE: “Oh Christmas Tree”)
Oh, number Pi. Oh, number Pi. Your digits are nonending,
Oh, number Pi. Oh, number Pi. No pattern are you sending.
Want more math Christmas songs? Go here!

Hee-hee. This is some crazy editing. Star Trek TNG in “Make it So!”

You better watch out; you better not sneeze.
You better not cough, ’cause you’ll spread a disease….Viruses are comin’ to town.
“Catch” all the lyrics here.

This one doesn’t change the lyrics so much as it is performed in a geeky way. All electronic devices band in “Feliz Navidad.”

Pirate Christmas Carols! This is from me. I’ve written a lot of these. Here is one you can listen to with lyrics. No Ale!No Ale! No Ale! No Ale! Six months at sea with no dark, stout or pale.

So what’s does your family geek out about? Make it a family game to rewrite lyrics to a familiar holiday tune. You’ll be singing it every year afterwards!

Here’s one I wrote about my favorite Avenger…

Loki Was A Gentlemen
(To the tune of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen)
Loki was a gentleman when he took all the power.
His smile was quite debonair as he told us to cower.
“Sweet lady, kneel before me now, no need to look so sour.
Many thanks, this encounter’s been a joy, been a joy.
Many thanks, this encounter’s been a joy.”

Primo: A Mathematical Board Game

Primo Board, showing the color-coded numbers along the line to 101. © Primo

I am always on the lookout for ways to help children to practice their mental mathematics skills. Children need lots of opportunities to use these skills to ensure that they have a really good grasp of mental calculation, which is vital as they take mathematics tests and also as a life skill. However, drilling these skills with worksheets can be dry and boring, so other tactics are required.

Over the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve developed a few games of my own, but when I heard of Primo, I thought I’d check it out and see if it would be a useful addition to my teaching arsenal.

Primo is a board game designed to help children practice their mental calculation skills while playing a game of both skill and chance, based around the power of prime numbers. The board is the main draw here. It is cleverly designed to show the divisors of a number by color coding, acting as a support for those who might need a little extra help and also showing the patterns of the numbers.

Players have two pieces on the board, and race to see who can make it to 101 first by rolling two dice and using their scores to move the pieces. If a piece lands on an opponent, they are sent back to the start. Players can use all four operations to move their pieces forward and backward along the number line, meaning that their mathematical skills get a good workout.

Extra excitement is added in the form of both positive and negative cards, which are drawn when the player lands on a prime number. Some have to be played immediately, while others can be kept and played when they will produce the most reward, or the most havoc.

I must admit that it took me a while to get my head around the rules, but once I’d got it, it wasn’t as complicated as I’d feared at first glance. I did find that the difficulty of the game dropped off too early for the group that I played Primo with, as we found that as our counters got closer to 101 we couldn’t use multiplication or division arithmetic to move our pieces. However, we played with the basic rules, and there will be sets of rules available that will adjust the length and difficulty of the game. It could also be a good learning opportunity for children to come up with their own rules that extend the game or adjust its difficulty. You could use one piece per player and just add and subtract with younger children, for example.

I think that Primo is a really great idea, and is well executed too. I particularly like the color-coded board, which as an educator I can think of lots of other uses for, too! The tactics of advancing your pieces while also trying to knock others off the board can inspire some great mathematical thinking and will really help to keep those mental mathematics cogs turning. I can see a group of adults spending quite a while agonizing about which move to make to stop their opponents and also to race for the prime spot of 101. Personally, I can see myself using this in the classroom to keep mental mathematics practice fun and engaging.

The Primo Kickstarter has already met its funding goal, but it does have a few days left if you’d like to order your own game.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Geektastic Cookie Cutters You Can Print

R2-D2 cookie cutter design file and printed work by bluedynno

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if you could 3D print cookie cutters, and indeed you can. Much easier than bending your own copper! Then this week when looking for a design to test the setup of a new printer, that seemed like as good a choice as any. And Thingiverse, the repository of shared 3D printer design files, has a bevy of geektastic cookie cutters ready to print—here are just a few:

User theo has a whole set of geeky cookie cutters: The Apple, Arch Linux, and Open Hardware logos; a floppy disk; and a Pac-Man ghost.

Open hardware geeks can also print a cookie cutter of the Arduino logo or the Raspberry Pi logo.

Star Wars


Video Games

Doctor Who


  • Pi
  • A mole for celebrating Mole Day
  • Cookiequations—a set to make impressions for cookies with equations on them
  • More cookie equations pieces to use with number cookies: e, i, pi, phi, Sigma (big and little), i, sqrt(-1), and integral sign

Other Geekery


Bach’s Mobius Strip

Composite image By Rebecca Angel
Composite image By Rebecca Angel

Sometimes when artists visualize music, it detracts from the piece (scenes from Fantasia come to mind…), but this little animation by Jos Leys shows just how brilliant Bach can be.

Check it out with your kids, make a mobius strip, and then listen to the music again on the instrument Bach used to compose it.

The Fun on Peg + Cat Adds Up This Fall on PBS Kids

This fall, PBS Kids is premiering a brand-new show aimed at encouraging preschoolers to explore problem-solving skills and basic math concepts. Peg + Cat is the creation of Billy Aronson and Jennifer Oxley, who was also the creative director for Wonder Pets and 3rd and Bird.

The Chicken Problem © Random House

Oxley’s involvement alone was enough to get me interested in the new series, but it wasn’t until my daughter and I picked up The Chicken Problem at the library that we really began to be excited. Written by the show creators, The Chicken Problem is a fantastic introduction to Peg’s world. Peg is a girl who loves solving problems with her friend, Cat, and she has a personality that immediately leaps off the page and promises to translate well to the small screen.

The most striking part of Peg + Cat’s world, though, is the mathematical concepts that make up their world—literally. Flowers are created out of division signs, the clouds drifting in the sky are infinity symbols, and each page hides formulas and numbers. A commenter on the Peg + Cat opening song on YouTube identifies a formula in the background as a partial differential equation of a wave function.

If The Chicken Problem is any indication, Peg + Cat will be a fantastic way to get preschoolers like my daughter excited about solving problems. Three games are already up on the PBS Kids web site, and the pattern recognition activity Chicken Dance really got her wheels turning. According the PBS Kids press release, Peg and Cat’s adventures will take them across the whole wide world and beyond.

Each episode features a story in which Peg and Cat encounter an unexpected challenge that requires them to use math and problem-solving skills in order to save the day. Their adventures take viewers from a farm to a distant planet, from a pirate island to a prehistoric valley, from Romeo and Juliet’s Verona to Cleopatra’s Egypt to New York’s Radio City Music Hall. While teaching specific math lessons, the series displays the value of resilience and perseverance in problem-solving.

Peg + Cat premieres October 7, 2013 on PBS Kids.

Just HOW Badly Do You Need that A in Math?


Are you struggling in math? Have you ever considered what extremes you might go through to get those taxes done accurately? Or to balance your checkbook? Perhaps you need to finish up that statistical comparison of two backyard weather stations for your next GeekMom review.

Have you considered electrical stimulation to improve those skills? Roi Cohen Kadosh’s team at Oxford University has proven that it’s possible. Continue reading Just HOW Badly Do You Need that A in Math?

Happy Birthday, Sophie Germain!

Sophie Germain's grave, photo by Miek Messerschmidt on Wikipedia, cc.
Sophie Germain’s grave, photo by Miek Messerschmidt on Wikipedia, cc.

Today marks the 237th birthday of the French mathematician Sophie Germain (1776-1831). Germain was barely a teenager when the turmoil of the French revolution forced her to spend much of her time locked safely indoors. With not much else to do, Germain read her way through her father’s library and found herself deeply interested in the works on Archimedes, Sir Isaac Newton, and Leonhard Euler.

As you can imagine, Mathematics was not a proper subject for a young woman to learn, so she spent most of her life working by correspondence under the male pen name “Antoine-August Le Blanc.” Due to her interest in number theory inspired by Archimedes, she corresponded with many famous mathematicians specializing in number theory, such as Joseph Louis Lagrange, Adrien-Marie Legendre, and Carl Friedrich Gauss. She sent them her work and enticed so much interest from them that she eventually had to admit her true identity. Lagrange continued to be her mentor, while Gauss replied with the following remarkable quote:

“The enchanting charms of this sublime science reveal themselves in all their beauty only to those who have the courage to go deeply into it. But when a person of that sex, that, because of our mores and our prejudices, has to encounter infinitely more obstacles and difficulties than men in familiarizing herself with these thorny research problems, nevertheless succeeds in surmounting these obstacles and penetrating their most obscure parts, she must without doubt have the noblest courage, quite extraordinary talents and superior genius.”

Germain later became interested in a contest by the Paris Academy of Sciences “to give the mathematical theory of the vibration of an elastic surface and to compare the theory to experimental evidence.” This was essentially a brand new field of mathematics and the amount of work and innovation involved scared away potential candidates. Germain was in fact the only participant in the competition. Despite her immense talent, her submission to the contest was riddled with errors due to her lack of formal education. The Academy extended the contest multiple times and Germain persisted. She continued to work on the problem and presented an improved solution at every iteration. Her persistence paid off, her third submission was accepted and she became the first woman to win a prize from the Academy in all of its long history beginning in 1666. However monumental the win, Germain still not allowed, as a woman, to attend sessions at the Academy until many years later due to a friendship with mathematician Joseph Fourier (Fourier Series, discovered greenhouse effects).

After the years spent working in the contest in elasticity theory, Germain returned her first love, number theory. More specifically, she focused on Fermat’s Last Theorem.

You may recall Fermat’s famous theorem which proposed, in 1637, that for any three integers a, b, and c, an + bn = cn cannot be true for any integer value for n greater than 2. Perhaps even more famous is Fermat’s note about his theorem: “I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.” The puzzle of discovering Fermat’s “marvelous proof” has been the world’s most difficult mathematics problem ever since.

Germain did the first major advancement on proving Fermat’s Last Theorem in 200 years since its inception. Prior to Germain, Fermat’s Last Theorem had only been proven by other mathematicians for n values 3, 5, and 7. Germain worked a subset of the original theorem, known as Sophie Germain’s Theorem:

“Let p be an odd prime. If there exists an auxiliary prime P = 2Np + 1 such that if xp + yp + zp = 0 (mod P) then P divides xyz, and p is not a pth power residue (mod P). Then the first case of Fermat’s Last Theorem holds true for p.”

Germain’s work proved the theorem for all primes smaller than 100. It wasn’t a full proof, but it was a big step forward.

While her work in elasticity was fundamental to the field, she remains most famous for her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem–in my book at least, but I have a soft spot for Fermat’s Last Theorem. Please join me today in celebrating Germain’s life and the advancement for women in mathematics. Happy birthday, Germain! May we all be as self-starting, persistent, and courageous as she was.

No Starch Press Manga Guides Make Science Fun

Image courtesy No Starch Press

Have you ever read a textbook cover to cover? I’m in grad school. I’ve had to do it more than once. It usually requires massive amounts of caffeine and re-reading a lot of pages. Well, there’s some good news. No Starch Press has The Manga Guide series on textbook topics, such as statistics, electricity, and molecular biology. The manga books are written by Japanese subject matter experts. They  have been translated to English and (thankfully) rearranged to read from left to right.  Update: I’m told the Japanese originals were left to right, so no rearranging was necessary.

I have three sample use cases in my house, so No StarchPress provided me with three sample books. First is my 11-year-old daughter. She volunteered to read The Manga Guide to Electricity. Next up is my husband, who is studying for his GRE and has discovered that he’s forgotten everything he ever learned in high school math. He read The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra. I’m taking a graduate class in quantitative analysis this semester, so my book was The Manga Guide to Statistics.

All three of these books turn out to be very similar in plot. Character A is struggling with a topic and put into a situation that requires them to learn the subject matter from Character B. It doesn’t matter if they were sent from an alternative dimension with advanced electrical capabilities or trying to get closer to a school crush, the subject matter takes center stage in all of these books. Each goes through a series of illustrated examples that teach the concepts, and the struggling learner interrupts with lots of questions.

I thought that the idea would end up being so hokey that it would disguise the learning material, but I was drawn in to what turned out to be fairly cute stories within a couple of pages. My husband had several GRE prep books, Khan Academy, and a course through Udacity, but it ended up being manga that taught him the most, probably because of the struggling-learner-with-lots-of-questions approach.

I found The Manga Guide to Statistics to be surprisingly good as well. There was the manga story line, of course, but the book also had lots of problems you could work out yourself. The instructions showed you how to do the computation in Excel. Thank goodness. I’m sure a lot of students appreciate learning about statistical concepts and research methods without learning any of the math, but I’m not one of them. Working out frequency distributions or standard deviations really helps me see what those vocabulary words mean in action. The silly and very Japanese examples (the mean price of ramen in an imaginary building with only ramen restaurants) were actually pretty fun.

Speaking of Japanese, that may be the one caveat for this series. The books are translated to English, but there are still illustrations with Japanese text (which may or may not have been mirrored to make the comic books read left to right – I can’t tell). There are lots of cultural references to Japan. That makes sense and is completely part of the charm if you’re a manga fan. However, my daughter struggled with some of these cultural differences as she read. Little things like knowing what “Yen” meant. She’s a Miyazaki fan and no stranger to manga, but she’s also an 11-year-old American. An older child is more likely to see the cultural differences as interesting instead of a barrier to comprehension.

Even with that caveat, this was a cute and smart series. I’d  recommend The Manga Guide to home-schoolers, summer break supplemental learning, college students trying to brush up on a topic, and anyone with a love of anime or manga that wants to learn more about a math or science topic. I’d say the age range starts around middle school, but pay attention to the subject matter.  The books are overall solidly written and make hard science topics entertaining



5 Ways to Sneak Math Lessons into Baking Christmas Cookies

Including the kids with the cookies can help sneak in so many math lessons, they won’t even realize they’re getting educated in the yummy process. Photo: Dave Vollmer.

This has been a banner year for baking Christmas cookies in my household. In addition to shipping several dozen to the troops overseas, I’ve also given some to our base holiday cookie drive, which are given to the single Airmen who are staying in town for the holidays. We also like to give little tins of cookies to the kids’ teachers and bus drivers.

Recently I’ve acquired a couple of elves to help me out. My sons, ages 7 and 10, are old enough to do just about everything in the cookie baking process (with plenty of adult supervision). My youngest son loves cracking eggs, which is just the beginning of the educational value of this annual tradition. I offer to you five small math lessons that can pay dividends for any young person to have a fruitful future in cooking and baking.

1. Doubling or Halving Recipes:  This can be as simple as “Two eggs instead of one,” but it can also get a bit more complex, such as doubling 2/3 cup of flour. For a 7-year-old, multiplying “2/3” by two can be a new experience.

2. Measuring Ingredients: Break out the measuring spoons and cups. Show your kids how to properly measure 1 tablespoon of baking powder, 1 cup of packed brown sugar, or 6 ounces of molasses. Teach them basic length measurement skills by having them slice the stick of butter for the appropriate number of tablespoons. If your kids are as geeky as mine, challenge them to convert the recipes into metric measurements: grams and liters.

3. Oven Temperatures: Take time to show the kids how an oven works (a “conventional oven” works with convective heat transfer, not to be confused with a “convection oven” which works the same way, except with fans to help better distribute the heat). Baking temperatures that recipes suggest often relate to the amount of sugar, and how you want that sugar to react to the heat — in-tact or melted. Learn more about the melting point of sugar (along with some great tips on calibrating your oven) by reading this excerpt from Jeff Potter’s Cooking for Geeks, an essential part of my family’s cooking library.

4. Rolling Out x-inch Thickness or x-inch Balls of Dough: Again, teaching the kids measurement: break out rulers to show the kids how think 1/2″ or 1/4″ of rolled-out dough looks. Make an example of a 1″ rolled out ball of dough and challenge the kids to replicate them. One of our family’s favorite cookie recipes, “Holiday Surprise Cookies“, does precisely this, requires the balls of dough to be rolled out uniformly.  In fact, just yesterday, the kids learned the hard way the consequence of rolling out non-uniform balls of dough: about 1/4 of cookies, the too-small ones, were burned; about 1/4 of them, the oversized ones, were undercooked.

5. Dividing Cookies Amongst All Your Favorite Friends and Loved Ones: For younger preschool-aged kids, this is great: “Place ten cookies in this tin, please.” For older kids, ask them to divide cookies into dozens and watch the gears turn!

Above all, don’t be afraid to turn your kids loose in the kitchen! Really, it’s okay… there will be messes, there will be mistakes, there will be lots of “factory seconds” as we call them in our house. The kids will have a blast and you can smile proudly: you taught your kids about math! And it was delicious.

Allow me to leave you with links to the Vollmer family’s Christmas cookie staples (besides the classic sugar cookies):


Don't Miss Danica McKellar's Latest Math Book, Girls Get Curves

Girls Get Curves
Image: Hudson Street Press

Geometry was one of my favorite kinds of math. I loved learning how shapes worked, and even memorizing theorems and postulates. I especially enjoyed the challenge of doing geometric proofs. I looked at them like logic puzzles, forcing me to find a way from point A to point B using only the tools I knew up to that point. But I realize that I’m one of the lucky ones, girls who naturally like math, in and of itself. Not all girls are that lucky, however, and Danica McKellar writes books for those girls.

Next in Danica’s series of books aimed at middle school girls is Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape. Along with her other books (Math Doesn’t Suck, Kiss My Math, and Hot X: Algebra Exposed!), Girls Get Curves lays out math concepts in a way that many girls that age will understand, using math to describe such things as making assumptions about people, and using stories to describe parallelograms. Full of concrete and well-explained mathematical concepts, Danica inserts plenty of asides, stories, and cute, “girly” drawings among the angles, tangents, and proofs. She puts concepts that might be new or difficult to understand in terms that kids can understand, and relating to things with which they are already familiar.

Continue reading Don't Miss Danica McKellar's Latest Math Book, Girls Get Curves

Danica McKellar Interviewed on NPR's Science Friday

Image: Hudson Street Press

Yesterday, geeky mom Danica McKellar was interviewed on NPR about her new book, Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape, her latest effort about teaching math to (especially) teenage girls. This book is geared toward, surprise, geometry. (Review of this book is forthcoming.)

Take a listen as Danica talks about her sassy approach to teaching math from a fresh and somewhat “girly” perspective. She aims her educational efforts at preteen and teenage girls, combining math education and life lessons. Danica is writing the kind of math books that she wishes she had at that age. The interview is only about 12 minutes long, and is worth a listen.

And while you’re waiting for my full review, check out an excerpt from the book that talks about “An Introduction to Logic and Reasoning.” Her approach is fun and totally unlike what you find in most math textbooks.

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Pensacola MESS Hall: A Hands-On Science Experiment Museum

A temporary sign for a temporary location. My sons in front of the Pensacola MESS Hall. This unique concept in science museums needs to become the standard. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

This summer my sons and I have already paid two visits to Pensacola, Florida’s newest science museum, the Pensacola MESS Hall. Where MESS = Math, Engineering, Science, and Stuff.  My husband is now asking us to join us this week (we had previously gone while he was at work) and we’ll be squeezing in one more visit before the facility temporarily closes on August 18th.

What is the MESS Hall?

At the MESS Hall, everything — and we mean everything — is meant to be hands-on. There is guidance for math and science activities, but the kids can follow the directions… or take things in a completely different direction. There is no wrong answer at the MESS Hall.

Like a real mess hall, museum patrons “order” an experiment at the counter. The experiment choices are offered on a “menu” which is seen on the counter towards the right. The materials for the experiment chosen are presented on a cafeteria-style plastic tray. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

The MESS Hall has this cafeteria feel when you walk in. There are tables with cafeteria-style trays filled with experiment supplies, kids are sitting at the tables performing experiments. There’s a counter in the back corner. Again, like a cafeteria, there’s a menu of “MESS Kit” experiments available, and the kids (and adults!) can walk up to the counter and “order” an experiment to perform.

There is a guidebook to accompany the materials. The guidebook follows the scientific process, presenting the procedure, prompting hypotheses, observation and changing of variables. Then the experimenter is asked to form conclusions.  At the end of the little guidebook is a more thorough explanation.

Where have you been all my life? After years of visiting kids’ museums filled with a few interactive exhibits here and there, projects such as those offered at the MESS Hall are typically tucked in a back corner at other places.  The museum visitors experiencing the scientific method are generally in a large auditorium, participating in a Mr. Wizard’s World-type of program.

A Brief History

The MESS Hall is the brainchild of Dr. Megan Pratt, a chemist and neurobiologist by education, who current serves on the Pensacola City Council and is the education director of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), a research non-profit affiliated with the Florida University System.  Dr. Pratt’s Science Saturdays at the IHMC were so immensely popular, she sought funding to expand the style of hands-on science exploration to a full-time prescence in downtown Pensacola.

As described in this article from earlier this summer, Dr. Pratt received enough funding to run a trial-version of the MESS Hall in Downtown Pensacola during the school districts’ summer vacation. A science experiment in and of itself, so says Dr. Pratt. After this summer trial run, which ends on August 18th, the Friday before school starts in our community, the museum board plans to embark on a fundraising campaign to raise enough capital to establish a larger permanent location in Downtown Pensacola starting in 2013.

My youngest son with another famous face.  He’s taking part in the “Taste Test” experiment, where the subject will taste a strip with the compound “PTC”. PTC is a genetic marker that relates to the ability to taste bitter substances. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Why Do My Sons and I Love the MESS Hall?  Let Me Count the Ways.

  1. There is no right or wrong answer to these experiments.  There is no timeline for conducting the experiments.  Kids can be as messy as they want (or as messy as their parents can handle).
  2. The experiments available cover a wide spectrum of science disciplines: biology, robotics, chemistry, geosciences, electromagnetism, optics and chromatography…among many others.
  3. Your kids don’t want to sit still for experiments?  That’s okay. There are many activities on the periphery: a harmonograph, a Van De Graff generator, hands-on math puzzlers, a wall on which kids can build marble runs, and hallways filled with optical illusions.
  4. Kids are exposed to the scientific method, something I hold near and dear to my heart, in a safe and fun way.
  5. At $5 per person, consider what one gets: unlimited access to experiment materials, space for conducting the experiments — and making the messes, and kids being able to interact with others all in the name of science.
  6. Parents can partake, too!
In this slime experiment, you can see how the materials are presented on a cafeteria-style tray and there’s a laminated booklet that guides the experimenter through the process. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

I hope this idea of a hands-on-only science museum catches on in other locations. Many other museums already have very excellent hands-on/interactive areas within their larger facilities. San Francisco’s Exploratorium led the way as one the earliest hands-on-museum experiences. The Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina, the Discovery Place in Charlotte, North Carolina and the Durham Museum in Omaha, Nebraska all have outstanding programs. My family has also seen awesome traveling programs that are completely hands on, such as the rooms fully of Kapla blocks and the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Moneyville program.

Can you tell we like museums just a little?

I can’t wait to see what the future of the Pensacola MESS Hall brings. I overheard one of the volunteer directors mention that the facility has been so popular, he’s confident in their ability to raise the money to continue Dr. Pratt’s dream! I’ll help out as much as I can!

Four Fun Math Apps

Marble Math app by Artgig Studios
Marble Math by Artgig Studios

“Mom, can I play that math game?” These words are a frequent refrain around my house these days, and they’re music to my ears. Here’s a look at four great math apps my kids are not just enjoying, they’re begging to play.

Numbers 1 and 2: Artgig Studio‘s Marble Math apps for iOS are so good they score two spots on my list: one for Marble Math and one for Marble Math Junior. Kids drag a marble around the screen (there’s a tilt-the-screen option too) to hit the right answers and fun bonus items. Both versions of this app have been an enormous hit with my kids ages three through 11. The three-year-old needs help from me or an older sibling to identify odd and even numbers, count by fives and tens, or work the simple addition problems in Marble Math Junior; the six- and eight-year-olds can play it independently, picking up some excellent math-fact drill quite unawares. The older kids’ app presents more challenging problems but delivers the same absorbing, addictive game action. These apps get my highest recommendation.

And speaking of addictive…

Continue reading Four Fun Math Apps

Smart Summer Fun: 30 Ideas For Your Geeklets

smart fun for kids, brain-building activities for kids,
Seeing more than ever before. (Image CC by 2.0 by jurvetson)

1. Make a marble run out of junk.

2. Mail yourselves postcards when you go somewhere for the day, even around town. It’s a hoot when kids get snail mail. Later in the week they’ll be glad to get a card reading, Hi Me. I had a great time today riding a paddle-boat with Grandpa. We both got wet. Bye self!

3. Learn to play a free instrument you already have. (Really, it’s in your kitchen.)

4. Learn chemistry using pennies.

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

6. Subversively advance geographic knowledge using a wall map.

7. Designate your yard as a nature area.

Continue reading Smart Summer Fun: 30 Ideas For Your Geeklets

Exponential Awesomeness of Neil DeGrasse Tyson

It doesn’t matter where you start. Any exposure to astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson creates ever increasing urges to absorb more of this man’s wisdom, delivered with the charisma and wit rarely packaged in one person.

For example, a newly released video by science enthusiast Max Schlickenmeyer adds music and visuals along with Dr. Tyson’s answer to the question: “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?”  It may be obvious to you that every one of Dr. Tyson’s utterances are profound enough to warrant cinematographic treatment. But then we’d miss his huge smile. This grin is evident as he answers other questions submitted by Time readers. Responding to an inquiry about American students lagging behind in math and science, he said:

Get out of their way. Your kid is born a scientist. What does a scientist do? Look up and say, “I wonder what that is?”  Then goes to find out. Let me poke it, let me break it, let me turn it around. That’s what kids do. You can’t let a kid alone for a minute without them laying waste to your house because they’re grabbing stuff off the shelves. What do we do? We prevent that. We prevent these depths of curiosity from revealing themselves even within our own residences… When [my kids] were young and still today, if they see something they want to experiment with, even if they might break it, I let it go. Let the experiment run its course. Because therein is the soul of curiosity that leads to the kind of mind you want as a scientist.

Then, of course, there are Dr. Tyson’s many interviews where science charms everyone and briefly we imagine a smarter more informed media, somewhat like Comedy Central’s fake news but for real. We let ourselves dream of movies that offer more scientific veracity along with the story line, as Dr. Tyson suggests.

If you watch a Dr. Tyson video, chances are you’re going to want another. He’s the X in an equation that ramps up the awesomeness of science and math.

[UPDATE: Dr. Tyson recently spoke with GeekDad Editor Matt Blum. Listen to the interview on!]



Mathematical Precision of Pasta

A rendering of pasta ioli, also a mobius strip, which George L. Legendre named after his daughter.

When mixing flour, egg, salt and water to make pasta, I’d guess the only math you consider is how many minutes you have left before the kids will be begging for dinner. I’d guess that you never really contemplated the mathematical beauty of that rigatoni or cavatappi that you are eating. Thats not the way George L. Legendre eats pasta.

Image Courtesy Amazon

In an effort to bring order to the possible chaos of cooking, George L. Legendre takes cooking geek to the next level with his unique book, “Pasta by Design“. Legendre takes 92 of the most familiar types of pasta, categorizes them, determines the complex mathematical equation describing the shape and shows us incredibly intricate computer models for each type of pasta.

“Pasta by Design” is not a cookbook, there aren’t recipes or great wine pairings, this is a tome of mathematical beauty more akin to a math reference book. Each page spread is totally dedicated to one specific type of pasta; amazing photography joins with mathematical models and formulae to create an in depth description of that type.

Image courtesy IJP Corporation

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the pasta family tree, where Legendre uses ‘phylogeny’ (the study of relatedness among natural forms) to classify the 92 types of pasta by identifying unexpected relationships between pasta shapes, their usage and common DNA.

Image courtesy of Thames & Hudson


George L. Legendre is principal of IJP Architects in London and a leading specialist in complex surfaces. The foreword is by Paola Antonelli of the Museum of Modern Art. IJP’s work has been featured on the cover of AA Files, Mondo Arc Perspective + and Icon Magazine. George is currently guest-editing a special issue of AD Magazine on the Mathematics of Sensible Things. The book is based on an idea by Marco Guarnieri.


2012 White House Science Fair

Students, from left, Gaby Dempsey, 12, Kate Murray, 13, and Mackenzie Grewell, 13, read in the Red Room of the White House after setting up their science fair exhibit, Feb. 6, 2012. The three girls, part of the Flying Monkeys First Lego League Team from Ames Middle School in Ames, Iowa, will participate in the second annual White House Science Fair with over 100 students from 45 states. CREDIT: Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert

Nothing like flying marshmallows to keep the secret service busy protecting President Barak Obama. Tuesday was the second annual White House Science Fair. The president seemed to have a blast playing with science yesterday, he even caused a little bit of innocent trouble with 14 year old Maker Faire veteran, Joey Hudy of Phoenix, AZ, as they shot a marshmallow across the bustling East Room of the White House.

A hundred students from 40 different science competitions around the country were honored with an invite to this prestigious event to meet the president personally and show the commander-in-chief what problems the scientific youth today are tackling. He was joined by Bill Nye the Science Guy and Tom Kalil, of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, along with other government officals.

This year’s projects ranged from marshmallow cannons to homemade robots to targeted cancer treatment research. The president was surely excited to meet one particular participant, Samantha Garvey, an Intel Science Talent Search 2012 semifinalist. Samantha completed a study of the mussel life on Long Island while she was homeless. Obama used her project as a perfect example of how even under the most difficult situations, the study of science and engineering can improve ones circumstances.

The President talked with Samantha Garvey, 18, of Bay Shore, N.Y., about her environmental sciences project examining the effect of physical environment and predators on a specific species of mussel, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Feb. 7, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The White House Science Fair was started late 2010 as one of many initiatives to encourage STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education around the nation, fulfilling a commitment he made at the launch of his Educate to Innovate campaign. In an address to the students, the president explained that his administration and its partners are working to educate 100,000 science and math teachers and to train 1 million additional STEM graduates over the next decade, it will be known as the 100kin10 initiative.

“As an American, I’m proud of you, and as your president, I think we need to make sure your success stories are happening all across our country,” he said. “Let’s train more teachers, let’s get more kids studying these subjects.”

The president has asked for $80 million in the yet-to-be-approved Department of Education budget, to be invested specifically into STEM teachers. This would cover programs that allow undergraduates to get both a STEM degree and a teaching certificate (including time spent in the classroom honing their skills). An additional $22 million has been donated by 14 private companies, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As another part of the 100kin10 initiative public programs such as Teach for America and National Math and Science Initiative will recruit and prepare nearly 15,000 STEM teachers around the nation.

Review: Monkey Tales PC Games Combine Math, Mazes and Fun!

Monkey Tales The Princess of Sundara

My kids play educational games on the PC at school and never once have they come home and said they’ve enjoyed that time. The only feedback they’ve ever given is that the games are not fun, but silly and boring and lame. So, when I told them I had some math games I wanted them to check out with me, there was a collective groan from the living room. I told them that they had to at least give these a chance before they could roll their eyes and play something else. They reluctantly agreed, but with the most skeptical and jaded expressions possible on their little faces.

Monkey Tales is a series of games, each geared toward a specific grade, so I started with The Princess of Sundara which is for kids age 7+ or second grade. This made my second-grader the first victim and she stood by me as the game loaded and the first screen appeared. I entered her name, told the game she was a girl and clicked the tutorial. It at least had her attention because the graphics were cute.  So far, so good.  Then she had to navigate her way across a room and through a door, which she watched me do for about two steps before she grabbed the mouse.  Once the door opened onto the second room, she was in my lap.  And within a matter of seconds she was pushing me out of the way and saying, “I got it, Mama.”

The controls were easy to understand and clearly explained.  I didn’t have to tell her how to do a thing, and she easily made her way through maze-like rooms full of puzzles that taught her how to manipulate objects and play the game.  She then had her first math experience. Her mission was to quickly determine the answers to problems that appeared at the bottom of the screen and then, in a Space Invaders style of gameplay, shoot the correct answer from the possible numbers at the top of the screen. There was a bit of competition though, as she had to score higher than the monkey playing the game with her or she wouldn’t be able to return to the main game and continue on her quest.

It took her a few tries to get the hang of moving her little turret across the bottom of the screen, avoiding goo falling from the ceiling, and shooting the right answer before the monkey, but she was never frustrated.  It was at about this point that my older daughter, who had been watching with me, asked if she could play the one for fourth graders on my laptop. That’s right, she asked if she could play an educational game about math.  I think that right there qualifies it as a success.

The Abbey of Aviath

I downloaded The Abbey of Aviath which is for kids ages 9+ in fourth grade and was curious to see if it would hold her attention. There’s a big difference between the two grades and it seemed like the style of play might not hold an older child for long.  I shouldn’t have worried, because not only were the math problems more age appropriate and challenging, the game play was more complex and she thoroughly enjoyed playing.

The combination of obviously educational segments along with a maze-like dungeon crawl, kept both kids playing until they decided they were starving and it was time to have a snack.  It’s an incredibly difficult thing to create a game that both entertains and teaches, and my kids’ initial reactions, their reluctance to even give it a chance, shows just how much of a problem this is in most games.

But, the fact that the game won them over in a matter of minutes and that they played long after I walked away is testament to the game’s success. If you’re looking to get your child a little extra time working on their math skills, then this series is definitely worth investigating. Each game tackles a range of math skills, some more difficult than others, as your child continues the quest. There’s also a good dose of fun in solving each maze and with the monkeys you defeat who end up in a special zoo where you can visit them and feed them bananas.  Available for just $14.95 you’ll find this investment will keep your kids learning and having fun for hours.

I received copies of this game for review purposes.

Geek Celebrates Hanukkah With Science: Day Three

Unconventional holiday traditions are fun for the whole family! So far this year, my family has celebrated Hanukkah by launching rockets indoors and constructing small boats in order to sink them. Today we’re delving deeper, into the very language of science. That’s right; it’s math time.

Roger Bacon said, “Mathematics is the gate and key of the sciences. … Neglect of mathematics works injury to all knowledge, since he who is ignorant of it cannot know the other sciences or the things of this world.” After today’s celebration, my son says, “Mmm, delicious math!”

The instructions for this experiment are simple (materials are in bold):

  • First, open a small bag of multi-colored candies.
  • Count the candies, and note on a chart how many candies were in the bag.
  • Sort candies by color and note on the chart how many candies you have of each color.
  • Repeat several times! (We opened eight bags, one at a time to avoid mixing candies.)
  • For fun, chart total candies, average candies per bag, and percent of each color.
  • Translate your data into a bar graph, line graph, and pie chart for easy comparisons.
  • Analyze and discuss your data before devouring the samples!

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

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

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

She’s also really nice.

Michele agreed to answer a few questions for GeekMom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

K1, P1, Slst, and Other Such Coding.

All Images: Sarah Pinault

I like to do a variety of crafts in my free time. I am an avid scrapbooker, I occasionally make clothing, I dabble in knitting, and I love to crochet. I prefer crocheting over knitting because if I make a mistake then I know how to fix it. When I knit and make a mistake, I have no idea where to even begin fixing it, so I have to unpick and start again. With crocheting, if I don’t understand a pattern, I have enough base knowledge to figure out a workable solution.

Last weekend I gave a refresher course in crocheting to a friend. For a long time now I’ve been a firm believer that it’s all about the math–the sequences in particular. So I employed this idea when showing her how to crochet a hat, and I do believe she picked it up quicker than the last time that I showed her.

This is how I explained it:

  • Starting with a base of two chains, you build a set of five stitches.
  • Into each of those five, you put two stitches which leaves you with a new base of ten, yes it’s in base ten.
  • From ten, you insert two into each again so that you now have twenty.
  • Simple doubling up to this point, but now we start introducing incremental sequences.
  • With twenty stitches you follow a set of ten, into the first stitch you add a single stitch, into the next stitch you add two.
  • You repeat this pattern ten times and end up with thirty stitches.
  • You continue with a single stitch in the first and second followed by two stitches in the third, you do this three times and end up with forty stitches.
  • Two singles and a double single making forty over a base of thirty.

You continue to increase in this manner. Three singles and a double single (not a double stitch – that is an entirely different beast) will give you fifty stitches over ten sequences. Four singles and a double will give you sixty stitches and so on. At some point however you begin to see a peculiar shape forming, and rather than have a multi pointed hat, you simply adjust to a sequence of twenty sets instead of ten. Once you reach a point where you are working on ten singles followed by a double single, your next row is not 11 singles but five singles, and a double single for twenty repeats.

It sounds better in person, and by the time we had reached five singles and a double single, my friend had conquered her crocheting fears and was happily multiplying herself to a hat with no need for further instruction.

Though knitting and crochet patterns confound some people, I still cannot understand many of the abbreviations without a good guide. If you can understand the mathematical principles behind the pattern, then it is easy to adapt to what you are being told. Very often, I come across a pattern I like, but from a designer whose methods I do not agree with. In these instances, I will look at the numbers associated with each increase and follow my own knowledge of how to build a pattern, instead of using their preferred way.

Think I’m reading too much into something that has been a simple task for centuries? Then you need to take a look at David Chudzicki’s blog post Simulated Knitting, the alternative title of which is “I’m a big fan of the Fruchterman & Reingold graph embedding algorithm.” The Knit ML Project also regularly posts on ways in which software and mathematical principles can be used to improve the standards of knitting patterns for the end user. In their own words:

  • KnitML is not intended to promote the “right” way to notate a knitting pattern. Rather, it is our hope to write and promote software which can be easily customized to both the preferences of the designer and the knitter. KnitML only hopes to standardize the underlying content model so that software everywhere can interpret and process knitting patterns.
For my next task, I shall teach my mathematically inclined husband to crochet my infamous Boba Fett hat–from a Binary pattern.

Entire Cyberchase Animated Series Now Available Online

Cyberchase website

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

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

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

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

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

STEM to STEAM: The Importance of Arts in Science

For this month’s Muse of Nerds, I quickly grabbed onto the STEM to STEAM movement (adding ‘arts’ to the technical.) Creativity is the foundation for advancement in all fields. The arts — writing, music, art, theater and dance — paired with science, technology, engineering and math, foster a relationship between both sides of the brain for maximum human innovation potential. Trying to place STEM at the top of the educational plant stifles growth.

In 1858, Friedrich Kekule published a paper that showed, visually, how atoms bond chemically. He continued to play with the design until in 1865, he put carbon as a six-sided ring (hexagon) with chains and links, which gave rise to organic chemistry. Kekule started out as an architect before switching to the new science of chemistry. The visualization of chemical bonding didn’t come out of experiments in the lab, but a daydream while riding the bus. His brain looked at chemistry with an architect’s eye.

Daniel Tammet holds the European world record for reciting pi from memory. Daniel can “sense” if a number is prime. I think it’s important to mention that Daniel has high-functioning autism because many educators tend to steer children on the Autism spectrum towards STEM fields. However, Daniel uses the arts to “see” numbers. He is a lucid writer with his book, Born on a Blue Day. The way he was able to memorize pi was by creating a visual landscape in his mind. Clearly, art and math are tied for him.

Science News had a special issue on August 14, 2010  devoted to our minds on music. It was a fascinating look at how music influences our growth emotionally and mentally. In it there was a quote from Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, “In terms of brain imaging, studies have shown listening to music lights up, or activates, more of the brain than any other stimulus we know.” That’s just listening! As Daniel Levitin, director of the music perception, cognition and expertise laboratory at McGill University in Montreal explained, “Music processing is distributed throughout the brain…and playing an instrument, in particular, is an ensemble activity. It involves paying attention, thinking ahead, remembering, coordinating movement and interpreting constant feedback to the ears, fingers and, in some cases, lips. It is one of the most complicated tasks that we have.”

How could that kind of thinking be considered extracurricula? That’s the saddest part. STEM in education is not just getting the funding for special programming, but amazing mental tasks like music aren’t even in the BASIC CURRICULUM!

This very morning I was teaching a creative writing class to some junior high students. The stories will be used to later design and program robots (based on challenges the writing students come up with). The writing students have to be creative to make their challenges cohesive with their story lines. The robotic students have to be creative in designing and programming robots. Tying the two endeavors together gives the project more weight.

Have you ever been to a science museum? Did you attend any of the fantastic theater shows? Watching a story unfold is basic human communication. Lecturing is not.

My children were taking a botany course and convinced their teacher to demonstrate their plant family identification ability using interpretive dance. Seriously. Their teacher was cool about it and let them try. They took all the information they knew about these plant families (memorizing), decided on what was the most important and distinguishable traits (critical thinking) and then came up with movements to convey the information in a clear way (innovation.) By using their full body to translate the concepts, more parts of their brain were used. Do you think they will remember the information better than if they wrote it out on a test? Can your fingers remember a song on the piano from when you were a child? Muscle memory is a powerful tool.

My husband teaches genetics and is frustrated at the lack of “creative and independent thought” the students portray. Students walk in the classroom lacking good reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. The scientists getting prizes don’t spit out what they were taught. They dream, they doodle, they hum, they dance their way to success.

Review: Math for Grownups

Let it be said from the start: I’m a word girl, not a numbers girl. And I’m okay with that. My husband? He wishes I could crunch numbers a little more like him. I think the glassy-eyed, blank stares he gets when he starts talking numbers to me scare him just a little bit.

I don’t know that I’ll ever get beyond the glazed over eyeballs, but Math for Grownups by Laura Laing is going to be my new cheat sheet. Broken down into chapters that cover using math in various situations (at home! on vacation! at the bank! Math is everywhere!) the author uses plenty of examples to make the math make sense. And that, dear GeekMoms, is what needs to happen in order for me to improve my skills.

Answering the age-old question, “When will I ever use this again??” the author discusses the math behind big issues like figuring out just how much you can afford to pay for a new home and smaller problems like what size turkey you’ll need to feed your Thanksgiving guests. You’ll find formulas and clear, concise instructions to help you calculate whether or not a big warehouse membership is worth the cost, how much carpet you’ll need to cover your floor, or (maybe more importantly) how many miles you’ll need on the treadmill to burn off one doughnut.

As you might be able to tell from some of those examples, this isn’t a dry math book. The author makes math relevant. This is a book that could teach high school math teachers a thing or two. While there are a fair number of equations represented, by using stories to illustrate the reason for those equations, she brings it down to a level that will be easily understood by people who generally shy away from math. Oh, this is when I’d use the V = lwh formula!

While the subtitle offers to help you “Relearn the Arithmetic You Forgot from School…” I have to quibble with that. I think this book would be valuable for high school math students who just aren’t getting it, despite ongoing classes. It’s not a full course, by any means, but it could really help a frustrated student wrap their head around some mathematical concepts.

Laura Laing offers up even more math goodness at her Math for Grownups blog and on Facebook. Go say hello, won’t you?

Image: Adams Media