The Ultimate List of Toys, Kits, and Books to Teach Kids Coding

Computer Science Education Week is coming to an end, but don’t let that stop your education! Earlier this week, I shared The Ultimate List of Tutorials, Apps, and Games to Teach Kids Coding. Today, I thought I’d append with a list of physical goods to teach your kids programming and electronics. Perfect for celebrating Hour of Code (better late than never), or under your Yuletide tree. Continue reading The Ultimate List of Toys, Kits, and Books to Teach Kids Coding

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

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

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

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

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

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

GeekMom: What did you do during the program?

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

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

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

GeekMom: Can you tell me about your mentor?

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

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

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

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

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

What was the most memorable thing your mentor told you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abby: I want to be a brain surgeon.

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

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

Introducing the 2015 Summer Immersion Program at Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code website. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
Girls Who Code website. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

The Girls Who Code non-profit organization is putting together its 7-week summer immersion program again in 2015, which combines classes, mentorships, and presentations to introduce junior and senior high school girls to Computer Science.

The project-based curriculum provides hands-on practice with software development in a university or company setting, where the girls can get exposed to Computer Science, its industry, and the female leaders thereof. Field trips include familiar names such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the list goes on.

The girls of last summer’s program reported having a greater sense of confidence, formed a support community for each other, and were more likely to consider pursuing a major in Computer Science in the future.

In addition to the summer immersion program, Girls Who Code also provides a network of clubs, lead by volunteer teachers and professors, assisted by volunteer college students and professionals, to instruct 40 hours of classes per year. These volunteers provide the (wo)man-hours while Girls Who Code provides the curriculum and training.

Why is this important? According to the Girls Who Code website, “in middle school, 74% of girls express interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), but when choosing a college major, just 0.3% of high school girls select computer science.” In the workplace, it translates to this: “In a room full of 25 engineers, only 3 will be women.” I don’t know if you’ve heard, but diversity tends to be a good thing.

Applications open soon, sign up online to be notified.

Groovy Lab in a Box: Review, Interview, Coupon Code, and Giveaway!

Imagine getting one of these delivered to your door every month! Image: Patricia Vollmer.
Imagine getting one of these delivered to your door every month! Image: Patricia Vollmer.

I was thrilled to get a chance to review the Groovy Lab in a Box subscription box program. We here at GeekMom have had the privilege of reviewing many subscription box services that cover a very wide variety of topics, from kids’ crafts to adult crafts to healthy living.

This is a unique subscription box experience in that it’s providing some very specific STEM activities to older elementary school students, ages 8-12, or grades 3-5. I hadn’t seen or heard of anything like it.

In this post I will go over the Groovy Lab in a Box our family received for review, share my interview with co-founder Elaine Hansen, and conclude with a coupon code and a chance for you to win a three-month Groovy Lab in a Box subscription of your very own. Look for that giveaway and coupon on the bottom of the post!

I can't believe how much they're able to fit into a box! One of the philosophies of Einstein in a Box is that parents shouldn't have to run out for 1-2 popsicle sticks or a couple of straws if they aren't on hand. Safety equipment is also included, which is genius. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
I can’t believe how much they’re able to fit into a box! One of the philosophies of Groovy Lab in a Box is that parents shouldn’t have to run out for 1-2 popsicle sticks or a couple of straws if they aren’t on hand. Safety equipment is also included, which is genius. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Groovy Lab in a Box, February 2014: “Fly With Me!”

The theme for the box we received, titled “Fly With Me!,” was aeronautical engineering. The shoebox-sized box arrived at our door and was stuffed to the brim with just about all of the supplies needed to complete the 10 activities that introduce your “STEMist” to principles of aerodynamics and aeronautics. In addition to the materials for the experiments, there was a pair of safety glasses, a sticker (which you’ll see on my youngest son in a photo in this post), and a coupon to share with a friend.

Central to everything is the Lab Notebook. It provides the instructions for the activities, background information, discussion questions meant to take the activities to the next level, and space for drawings and brainstorms. Lots of space.

In addition to everything in the box, the “STEMists” will want access to the Beyond…in a Box website for additional resources. The kids will find music, informative videos, videos of other box subscribers sharing their creations, and supplemental information for those who want to learn more. A login and password is included in the Lab Notebook.

My oldest son viewing the a Box website while working on his parachute activity. Image: Patricia Vollmer.
My oldest son viewing the Beyond…in a Box website on our iPad while working on his parachute activity. Image: Patricia Vollmer.

The first activity recommended, and the first one my son accomplished, was the parachute. All of the materials to do this activity were included except for the scissors to cut the string. There’s even a ruler enclosed for measuring the string.

Assembling the simple parachute. Even though all of the materials are supplied in the box, the materials are easily obtainable should your STEMist want to recreate the experiments or share the ideas with friends. Image: Patricia Vollmer.
Assembling the simple parachute. Even though all of the materials are supplied in the box, the materials are easily obtainable should your STEMist want to recreate the experiments or share the ideas with friends. Image: Patricia Vollmer.
We chose to use an action figure as the first weight. The experiment will prompt your student to add additional weight and discuss the impacts. Image: Patricia Vollmer.
My son chose to use an action figure as the first weight. The experiment will prompt your student to add additional weight and discuss the impacts. That’s why there are large paper clips (included in the box) attached to his leg. Image: Patricia Vollmer.

In the Lab Notebook, your student will be guided through making the parachute and launching it with an object tied to it. Then the student will be challenged with additional questions. What if you add weight to the action figure? What if you remove weight from the action figure? What forces are acting on your parachute?

Launching the homemade parachute off the back deck. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Launching the homemade parachute off the back deck. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The final question, one that my sons, my husband, and I discussed, was “Draw how you would change the parachute so that it will work well on a planet where the atmosphere is thinner than it is on Earth.” My sons didn’t draw the answer, but it was a great dinner table discussion.

After some additional experiments demonstrating the principles of flight, STEMists are given several working airplane experiments to put the fundamentals into practice.

My sons explored the “Deux” Loop Glider and Catapult Airplane.

The “Deux” Loop Glider looks strange, but is stable and flies well. The drag and lift generated by the loops demonstrate the principles of flight very well. The Lab Notebook will challenge students to make adjustments to the glider and record the impacts. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The glider would fly all the way through our living room and dining room, approximately 25′. The key, we learned, is to make the loops as concentric as possible when you look down the straw. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Modeling his “Einstein in a Box” sticker, my youngest son shows off the homemade catapult airplane he made. He learned about how forces applied to his airplane could make it fly longer and faster. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Modeling his “Groovy Lab in a Box” sticker, my youngest son shows off the homemade catapult airplane he made. He learned about how forces applied to his airplane could make it fly longer and faster. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

In summary, I am in love with the concept and potential of this program. I fully intend to continue a subscription for my sons. As you’ll read in the next section, some great topics are coming up for subscribers!

The company has a fantastic social media presence, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, Instagram, and YouTube. The company maintains a blog on Tumblr. Check them out through these links to learn more.

The Groovy Lab in a Box subscription program is available through the company’s website. Prices range from $28.95 for a single box (plus shipping) down to $23.95 per box for a 12 month subscription, with >1 month subscriptions including free shipping. The longer a subscription you choose, the lower the price-per-box becomes. The target audience for the home subscription boxes are 3rd through 5th grade students, with programs for Kindergarten through 2nd grade students coming soon.

Interview with Co-Founder Elaine Hansen

I had the chance to talk to Academics in a Box co-founder Elaine Hansen last week. She and I could have talked for hours if she didn’t have a busy full-time schedule to maintain.

Ms. Hansen herself is a mother of an elementary-school aged son, and is a high school chemistry teacher. Over her years of teaching, Ms. Hansen realized that school curricula are becoming more constrained in some of the basics of the scientific process, such as giving time for students to brainstorm new ideas, asking follow-on questions, and being allowed to retry experiments with slight changes in variables. She feels that having the opportunity to do those tasks will truly embed scientific thought in students and motivate more students into STEM lifestyles. The Groovy Lab in a Box program provides relevant STEM education to elementary school students in a fun way that truly harnesses children’s intuitive curiosity.

The program works in concert with the Next Generation Science Standards that are making their way into state education programs. Click the above link to learn more about what those standards include and the status of their getting integrated in your own state. One of the NGSSs that is seen in each of the subscription boxes each month is the elevation of the engineering design process to the same level of importance as teaching scientific inquiry. In other words, there is a project goal with each month’s box that the student will design and execute using the concepts learned through the included experiments. In our “Fly With Me” box, this project was to build an airplane that could fly 15 feet. This is the future of teaching science in America!

Ms. Hansen and I also discussed the open-endedness of science, and hence the open-endedness of the subscription boxes. If you consider current modern science, researchers are allowed to make a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and possibly fail at that hypothesis. It’s important for students to learn that failure is okay. Also, the subscription boxes give students the chance to ask follow on questions, which can then lead to further experiments and further discovery. This is how science works.

We discussed some of the unique features of Groovy Lab in a Box:

  • Include what you need in the box. Ensure an enthusiastic child doesn’t need to stop everything to wait for Mom to take him/her to the craft store for a couple sheets of card stock. Even though materials are included in the box, if one wants to recreate the experiment, the materials aren’t difficult to find.
  • Personal protective equipment. In the case of the box we received, there was a pair of science-lab-quality eye protection.
  • Eco-friendly materials. With very few exceptions (such as the ping pong balls and fishing line in the box my family received) the materials are recyclable. The straws were made of paper, in fact.
  • Retro-designs and colors. The visuals of the box, materials, and website all reflect fonts, artwork, and colors that harken back to the days of the Apollo project. Ms. Hansen wants to get users to reflect on the emphasis on scientific innovation, research, and investment in the 1960s.
  • Many of the materials are multitaskers. The ruler can double as a bookmark, and there was a keychain that looks like one of those grocery store discount cards that you put on a keyring. That keychain doubles as a hole punch: there are instructions in the Lab Notebook.

Some great initiatives are in the works for the company as well. They recently announced collaborations with Destination Imagination and camp STEM in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Groovy Lab in a Box is providing materials to these groups to help facilitate their missions. In addition, educator boxes are now available to teachers; these are lower-cost boxes that are sent out in bulk for the classrooms. There is also a STEM Team variation to these boxes; the Beyond…in the Box website gives details on how to divide tasks for team projects.

Finally, I had the chance to learn about some of the upcoming boxes. For the month of March, a “Swing into Spring” box is coming to subscribers, teaching the parts of a plant, the life cycle of a plant, and the water cycle. The engineering design challenge will be a greenhouse! Catapults, solar power,  and geology boxes are forthcoming as well.

Ms. Hansen’s enthusiasm and passion for her business are contagious. We lamented for the days when scientists were the pop-culture celebrities, rather than some of the role models our kids are being exposed to today. I immensely enjoyed talking to her about everything she and her partner Monica Canvan have done in the past year and it even made it wonder, “Am I doing enough?” when it comes to promoting STEM concepts with my sons.

Coupon for New Subscribers

The ladies at Groovy Lab in a Box have offered GeekMom readers a coupon for 50% off the first month’s box with the purchase of a subscription. Simply enter coupon code GEEKMOM50 at checkout!

A Giveaway!

Would you like to win your very own three-month gift subscription, starting with the “Swing into Spring” box? Simply enter our giveaway, following the instructions on our Rafflecopter widget.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Promote Computer Science Education With Hour of Code

Zuckerberg on CS education. Image from
Zuckerberg on CS education. Image from

Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek) is a week-long celebration occurring yearly to advocate computer science awareness and education. This year CSEdWeek is promoting a worldwide event called Hour of Code. Its goal is to introduce programming to 10 million students of all ages. All it takes is one hour, no computers necessary.

Celebrated the week of December 9th in honor of the late computer scientist Grace Hopper, this year CSEdWeek falls from Monday December 9th to Friday December 15th.  To celebrate in Hour of Code, you can sign up online to participate and commit to completing one hour of code during CSEdWeek. Individuals are welcome to participate solo, employers are encouraged to host a company event for their employees, and there are even prizes for educators who turn Hour of Code into a school event. Every educator will receive 10GB of free DropBox storage, and organizing a school-wide event will put you in the running to win free laptops or the chance to chat with Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square).

To help you achieve your one hour of code, CSEdWeek offers a variety of one-hour tutorials and even an “unplugged” tutorial for those schools who don’t have easy computer access. I think the unplugged tutorial may be my favorite idea, since most people don’t realize there’s more to programming than wildly tapping techno mumbo jumbo on a keyboard.

Not convinced that programming should be important part of the core education system? The following infographic may help shine some light on the situation. Every student introduced to computer science gets a chance to discover a career that offers tremendous growth potential.

Infographic about computer science education, image from
Infographic about computer science education, image from

CSEdWeek and Hour of Code is organized by and the Computing in the Core coalition.

GeekMom Bit by Bit: RoboMind Teaches Text Editor-Based Programming to Kids

Sample code in RoboMind. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
Sample code in RoboMind. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

Following a long hiatus, the GeekMom Bit by Bit series is back again to take a look at another great tool for teaching programming to kids: RoboMind. The objective in RoboMind is to create programs that allow a robot to perform certain tasks. This educational software offers a no-prerequisite-required introduction to programming, but it’s also flexible enough to offer a challenge for the older, more experienced students.

The side-by-side view of the code in a text editor panel and the testing robot environment in a graphical user interface (GUI) panel provides a feel for what programming is like in the real world—the good old text editor way—while still offering an eye-catching GUI which can help entice the attention of a young audience.

RoboMind uses its own programming language. The language itself is pretty simple. Its list of available robot actions (move, paint, see, etc.) and programming structures (loops, conditions, procedures, etc.) is fairly limited. However, the level of difficulty comes from the complexity of the tasks you aim to make the robot do. For example, if the goal of your program is to make the robot paint a square, that can be achieved very quickly once you’re familiar with how to program robot actions like move and paint. On the other hand, if you take for example some of the challenges available on the RoboMind website, like having the robot recursively draw a spiral or having the robot search the map for certain objects, the level of difficulty jumps exponentially. The latter examples not only teach how to use RoboMind‘s programming syntax, but also how to think like a programmer to solve problems in computationally or time effective ways.

Though I used the word “limited” to describe the list of available robot actions and programming structures, I was happy to see that comments and procedures were included. A comment is a line of text you can add in your code to describe what it is doing for future reference, usually starting with some sort of escape character so that the text is ignored at compile time and runtime rather than to be executed as code. Adding comments to your code is a good habit to pick up from the start, yet comments are not included in many programming teaching tools for kids. So props to RoboMind for that.

Procedures—segments of code that perform a smaller subtask, the same way an employee may do a small section of work that is part of a larger goal unknown to all but upper management—are also often excluded from these programming teaching tools. It can make sense to exclude procedures in tools aimed for smaller children, as they can be quite tricky to grasp. However, knowing when and how to segment your code into procedures is a vital skill for a programmer, so I’m glad to see them in this tool aimed for a slightly older crowd.

I couldn’t find in the documentation if procedures could take in different data types as parameters, or return values. While some robot actions, like frontIsClear, returns a Boolean (true/false value) that the user can use in a condition, I wasn’t able to create a procedure myself that did the same thing. Only integers can go in as parameters. I guess that’s why parameter data types and return values were not covered in the documentation. Nevertheless, being able to use procedures at all is a good start.

In its GUI panel, the robot operates on a map. Creating maps, while simple, is tedious work. It’s entirely text based. A map consists of tiles, where one character represents one tile. For example, “C” stands for a top left corner tile, “H” a top tile, “G” a left tile, etc. A map with a single rectangular wall would look like this:

Building maps in RoboMind. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
Building maps in RoboMind. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

I would have loved to see some sort of graphical map builder tool that let you click-and-drag tiles onto a maps, and have RoboMind create the text file in the background. Nevertheless, the opportunity to mix-and-match scripts and maps opens the opportunity to create interesting assignments. If the student is assigned to write a script for the robot to travel a maze, the teacher can test the student’s program with an entirely different map than the one the student used to test his or her code. Therefore, the student is encouraged to use proper logic to code a solution that will solve the problem in all scenarios—as good code ought to do—rather than just hard-coding a solution that only works in one scenario.

If getting started feels overwhelming, RoboMind does offer a few tools to help. First of all, there’s a “Remote control” tool that gives you a graphical user interface to control the robot. The control actions are limited to left turn, right turn, move forward, move backward, paint white, paint black, stop painting, pick up, and put down. It will automatically create a script that matches the sequence of control actions you clicked, which you can then copy and paste into your own script.

Remote control tool in RoboMind. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
Remote control tool in RoboMind. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

Another helpful tool is the “Insert” menu, which gives you a list of all possible robot actions and programming structures. Choosing one item on the list will add it directly into your script at the current cursor location.

Insert tool in RoboMind. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
Insert tool in RoboMind. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

Finally, RoboMind also comes with documentation and sample scripts, which is pretty standard to any software download.

Despite being first launched in 2005, RoboMind doesn’t look or feel outdated. New releases have appeared over the years, and the new RoboMind Academy—a spin-off offering RoboMind-centric online programming classes—did a beta launch just last month. If you are looking for educational software that will introduce your child or student to text editor-based programming rather than a GUI-centric programming environment like Kodu or Scratch, RoboMind can be a great place to start.

Moreover, if your child is begging for an ever-so-expensive Lego Mindstorms robot, starting them off with RoboMind can be a good assessment tool to determine if your child is really interested in robot programming before spending the big bucks. The time invested in learning RoboMind prior to Lego Mindstorms is far from wasted, there’s even an export feature that lets you port your RoboMind scripts to the Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0.

The tool is called RoboMind, and it was developed by Arvid Halma and Ernst Bovenkamp at the Research Kitchen in the Netherlands.

The objective in RoboMind is to create programs that allow a robot to perform certain tasks.

RoboMind is designed to serve as an introduction to programming, without prerequisites. Difficulty level can be adjusted by the complexity of the exercises, meaning it can be appropriate from elementary school to high school.

Ease of installation (on a scale from 1-easy to 5-hard): 1
It is as easy as clicking a couple of buttons.

Code readability (indentation, comments, naming convention):
The tool does allow code indentation, and in fact will automatically apply indentation as you type. However, because the RoboMind language uses curly brackets rather than indentation to define the beginning and end of a procedure, condition, or loop, correct indentation is not required for the program to run correctly.

Comments are allowed. They are used in sample scripts and documentation, thus encouraging the user to do the same. Hurrah!

The use of variables is limited. As far as I can tell, the user cannot explicitly create variables except as parameters of a procedure. Data types are not introduced; only integers can be passed into robot actions and procedures. Conditions are Boolean based and can use operators (not, and, or), but evaluations (e.g., if value = 1) are not possible. The naming of the procedures and procedure parameters are up to the user, but good naming convention are not covered in the documentation.

Methodology (designing, writing, testing, debugging, maintaining):
The side-by-side view of the coding environment and test environment allows the users to code and test as they go. There’s a play button available to run the whole script. There is also a next button to run commands one line at a time, which allows for efficient debugging. If an error occurs during runtime, a message will appear to indicate what the problem is.

Exception reporting in RoboMind. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
Exception reporting in RoboMind. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

Software quality (reliability, security, robustness, usability, portability, maintainability, efficiency, performance):
The use of comments allows a gateway to talk about code maintainability. The mix-and-match possibilities of testing the same script against different maps can cover code robustness, reliability, and usability. The use of procedure, though limited, can help introduce maintainability, efficiency, and performance.

Control flow (conditions, loops, exceptions):
The only conditional flow available is “if-then-else,” and the only loop flow available is “repeat.” “Break” and “end” are also available to exit a repeat or end the program, respectively. Conditions are limited to Boolean values without variables, but does include operators. Exceptions handling is not available.


RoboMind runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac OSX. They are also currently working on an online version that would be tablet-compatible. Programs made in RoboMind can be exported to Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0.

RoboMind is free for personal use, however a purchased license is necessary for educational or commercial institutions.

For kids:
There’s no separate resources aimed specifically for kids. See list of resources for parents and teachers below.

For parents and teachers:
Documentation Overview.

Lego Mindstorms NXT compability documentation.

RoboMind recently launched RoboMind Academy, which offers online programming courses. It is still in beta stage.

List of challenges to assign yourself or your child/student.

Overall score (on a scale from 1-bad to 5-good): 3
I love the look and feel of the side-by-side view, the text editor-based coding environment, and the use of comments and procedures. The robot testing environment isn’t super flashy, but it does the job and it doesn’t look dated. However, I am really disappointed about how limited the flexibility of the procedures, variables, and conditions are. Nevertheless, it’s a decent stepping stone into the world of text editor-based programming environments for those who feel they’ve outgrown the click-and-drag GUI-based programming teaching tools.

You might also be interested in reading these other GeekMom posts:

GeekMom Bit by Bit: Kodu Offers Visual Programming for Gamers

Kids Program Video Games With Kodu for Kids

Robot Turtles: Programming for Preschoolers

Teach Your Kids Basic Programming With Super Scratch Programming Adventure

Maker Faire New York: The Next Generation

As I walked through Maker Faire New York, I noticed table after table swarming with pint-sized makers—even more than years past—suggesting that Maker Faire is better than ever for kids. This year’s Maker Faire included the marvelous Zone E, a spacious area where parents could relax as their kids had room to make and play. Of course, kids’ stuff was peppered throughout Maker Faire, inviting them in at every turn.

The Austin Bike Zoo carousel. Photo: Amy Kraft

Families were welcomed into Zone E by the Austin Bike Zoo, with their stunning butterfly bicycles and their horse/bike hybrid carousel. My kids loved the carousel. The 8-year-old pedaled feverishly while the 3-year-old chilled out in the little kid holding area in the center.


Once in Zone E, we saw some familiar faces. I know Brian Yanish, creator of ScrapKins, because we’ve got a ScrapKins book in the works for Speakaboos, the story app I’m working on. In the ScrapKins booth, the kids got a lesson in upcycling, making masted boats from milk cartons and straws. Then there was a recycled river to race them down into the ScrapKins lagoon. My 3-year-old could have done that all day. What a great way to build and test a vehicle.

Boats successfully launched into the ScrapKins lagoon. Photo: Amy Kraft

More upcycling (and familiar faces) came in the Skraptacular booth. Skraptacular is run by a mom in my neighborhood, and thanks to her booth, we now know about plarn. Plarn is like plastic yarn that you make from plastic shopping bags. They used it for weaving through fencing, with some interesting results.

One of the plarn weavings from Skraptacular. Photo: Amy Kraft

We’re very lucky in New York City to have a bunch of places to take our kids for science play and learning. Storefront Science opened in my neighborhood, and it’s a real treat to have this resource in upper Manhattan. They came to Maker Faire with a creative exercise using batteries, LED lights, and pipe cleaners, letting kids build whatever they wanted. My daughter made a fuzzy creature flashlight.

Storefront Science booth

Robofun and the Brooklyn Robot Foundry are other science resources we have in the city. My daughter loved a robot-building class she took a few months ago at the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, but Maker Faire is a great reminder to work these maker activities into our weekends more often.

The best upcycling of stuffed animals I’ve seen. Photo: Amy Kraft

We managed to miss this activity completely, but when I saw these creatures sewn together from various animal parts, I finally knew what to do with those two bags of stuffed animals taking up room in the closet. I proposed to my daughter that she take parts from all of her favorites and combine them into one giant Frankenanimal. She’s all for it!

Making a survival bracelet. Photo: Amy Kraft

Even though she had one on her wrist from last year, my daughter was excited to make another survival bracelet. Made from one long length of durable cord, these bracelets are easy to make and provide you with a long length of durable cord in an emergency. It’s fun imagining the MacGyver-like scenarios where one would rip open their survival bracelet because a rope was needed. And now we have two of them. Double the survival!

LittleBits used during the Maker Faire workshop. Photo: Amy Kraft

We spent the most time at the LittleBits booth. I love these intuitive circuit pieces. They’re so well designed that I saw several kids plunk down in a chair and get a circuit going within a couple minutes. My ambivalence about them comes with their price and purchasing options, but more on that in a moment.

The task in the LittleBit workshop we attended was to make a Halloween costume; a nice, concrete task to get the creative juices flowing. My daughter already has a costume. She’s going to be Hermione. I suggested that she make something to go with her costume, and she came up with the idea of making Hermione’s cat, Crookshanks. She made the cat out of cardboard, then wired it up with a sound sensor and vibration motor so that when you said “Crookshanks!” the bell around her neck would ring. Like magic! You can see it working in the video above.

We were super excited about it until we started to walk away from the booth and we were told that she needed to unmake it to give all of the LittleBits back. There was no way for me to buy the parts that she used, unless I wanted to purchase the kits that they had for sale, but even that would have required remaking it. We will probably order the pieces individually online (for about $40), but I can’t help but wish they had structured the workshop more in the spirit of Maker Faire. Either charge a workshop fee, or require a kit purchase to be in a workshop, or be clear with kids that they’re just experimenting. Or let the kids keep the parts and chalk it up as a marketing expense. Just don’t make kids unmake at Maker Faire.

Of course, even I as talk about “the spirit of Maker Faire,” that spirit seems to be changing. It’s amazing to have so much inspiration and activity for kids in one place. I loved taking the kids to watch them try new and challenging things.

But it’s hard not to feel a little cynical as bigger corporate sponsors roll in and more and more of the booths are there so you’ll purchase their products. I understand the need for money to help Maker Faire (and its vendors) succeed, but it’s less of a showcase of weird and wild creations and inventions than it used to be.

If you went to Maker Faire this year, especially with kids, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Alleyoop Partners with NASA and National Geographic to Bring STEM to Your Teen's Screen

NASA video on Alleyoop
NASA is one of several partners providing educational content to Alleyoop users. Image source:

In February, the innovative educational website Alleyoop launched with personalized, interactive math instruction for students ages 13-17. Now Alleyoop has added a full range of science tutorials to its lineup, featuring content from partners such as NASA, National Geographic, and the National Science Foundation.

Alleyoop is geared toward middle- and high-school students who are looking for extra help in math and science, with an eye toward college readiness. It makes use of gaming mechanics and a clever interface to encourage progress and keep kids engaged. I got a peek at the new science offerings, and I have to say I very much liked what I saw. Subject areas encompass earth science, life science, physical science, biology, chemistry, and physics; Alleyoop’s mission is to provide tutorials in every topic covered in a typical science curriculum according to the Next Generation Science Standards. Their math instruction encompasses the new Common Core Standards.

For an outside-the-box homeschooling type like me, Alleyoop’s appeal lies in its game-based approach — I’m always looking for resources that make learning fun and engaging — and its thoughtfully curated content. Instead of combing through YouTube for a good video on, say, the atmosphere (and, if you’re me, probably getting sidetracked by cat antics and “how to eat a watermelon” tutorials), you can log into Alleyoop and immediately find an informative, high-quality video or activity from one of its partners — and that lineup of partners is pretty exciting. NASA! The National Science Foundation! Other content providers include Adaptive Curriculum, Brightstorm, Scientific Minds, and Virtual Nerd.

There is no fee to use Alleyoop — students complete missions to earn a currency called “yoops,” which they may spend on various kinds of tutorials (including a one-on-one tutoring option) — but additional yoops may be purchased with real money, similar to the “buy more gems” option in games like Dragonvale. You don’t ever have to spend a dime, but if you’d rather invest money than time, the option is there.

My kids and I will be taking a closer look at Alleyoop in the months to come, but for now I’m pleased to see another innovative learning environment working to make STEM accessible and fun for teens.

Introducing NASA G.I.R.L.S.: A New Mentoring Program For Girls

Mamta talking to Young Marines
Mamta talking to Young Marines. Photo used with permission.

I recently got wind of a new mentoring program called NASA G.I.R.L.S., organized by Women@NASA.  The program is so new that they are still building their website, but I knew I just had to contact them to find out more! I was able to reach the NASA official responsible for this new project, Mamta Patel Nagaraja, who was enthusiastic about spreading the word about NASA G.I.R.L.S.

So here’s how it works. Eligible girls in grades 5-8 can apply to be selected in this program where they will be mentored one-on-one by a woman working at NASA! The mentor could be of any STEM profession and will be assigned randomly, though they may consider the girls’ application essays to find a good match. The girls will participate in a five-week online NASA lesson plan that will cover activities in each of the STEM fields. “For example, during Science week, the student may design an interstellar trip and discuss why she chose certain design specifications.  During the engineering week, the student may design a robot hand or a mockup of the International Space Station from popsicle sticks, glue, and paper.” During those five weeks, the girls will be able to contact their Women@NASA mentor via video chat to get help on the assignments and ask whatever questions they like about STEM and working at NASA!

Women@NASA and Charlie Bolden
Women@NASA and Charlie Bolden. Photo used with permission.

Of course, I had to ask if the girls could contact their mentor after the program was over. “It is our goal to allow the young women and Women@NASA to maintain an e-mentorship well after the program concludes.  One thing we will observe during this pilot year is just how well the continuation of  mentoring goes.”

Since this is the pilot year, they are keeping the program small while they iron out the kinks for future years. Most likely only 15-20 girls will be selected this year. “We are mostly limited by the number of mentors who have the time necessary to mentor one-on-one.  We want the NASA girls to be fully engaged and feel really special. […] Someday, it would be our goal to mentor as many young girls that show interest by applying!”

Women@NASA Event
Women@NASA Event. Photo used with permission.

It will also be possible to mentor groups, due to a partnership between Girl Scouts of the Nation’s Capital and the Challenger Foundation. “Together, we will bring girl scout troops to a Challenger Foundation and tie in a Woman@NASA to lead a group mentoring session. […] After our pilot year, we would like to expand the group mentoring sessions to girls who are also not in the Girl Scouts program. Much of our pilot year will be dedicated to seeing what works and what doesn’t and making a stronger future program.”

Whether the program will continue next year (or how frequently per year) is dependent on the success of this pilot year. The success will be measured by the number of applications received and the number of mentors available, amongst other things. “We really hope the project will be successful and last for years to come.  That’s my goal anyway!”

I ask Mamta why she believed in this project.

We fully believe that the nation’s future largely depends on scientists, engineers, and technologists. Too many of the maladies that threaten the human race require the minds and resources of these professions. Moreover, many of these issues have triumphed for years, such as cancer. STEM careers are largely dominated by men, with only 25% of STEM jobs and related higher education degrees attributed to women. This alone is not a concern–men are smart and do a phenomenal job in these fields. Our goal is not to rah-rah women or in any way express that women are “better.” We simply believe that to address the issues facing the human population is a feat too great for just a small subset of our smartest people. We must tap into every market available. That means men and women, of the most diverse brains possible. It is the union of men and women working together that will win the war on cancer or find alternative fuels or propel us to Mars.

If you know a girl who might be interested, NASA G.I.R.L.S. will begin accepting applications online by the beginning of May and are due June 15th, 2012. The program itself runs July 9th through August 10th, 2012. You can follow @WomenNASA on Twitter or Women@NASA on Facebook to the latest news and updates. Mamta, I wish you and your team great success with this fantastic endeavor!

The Case For Community College

NCAS Group, photo used with permission.

Students are lucky if they can get one truly influential professor in their lives. I’ve had countless. I hold close to my heart the professors who taught me way more than the subject at hand. I remember so vividly those moments when I knew my life was forever changed by what I had learned: when Jeff Baker talked about slippery slopes and I knew I would never again construct flawed arguments, when Gary Ogden talked about evolution and it resonated to the core of my being, when Ranford Hopkins made me realize that the first action against racism is to acknowledge it still exists.

What do these professors have in common? They were all community college professors. While I’ve had many very smart professors in my undergraduate and graduate programs at well-reputed universities, I’ve actually had more great professors in two years of community college than in the rest of my academic career combined. Community college professors are some of the most caring, passionate, and inspired bunch I’ve had the chance to meet and I am forever grateful my path led me through community college rather than a “better” big name school.

Community college had such a meaningful impact on who I am today that I am excited to see it is shedding the negative connotation often associated with it. A Sallie Mae study, How America Pays For College 2011, stated “high-income families increased enrollment in the lowest cost institutions, two-year public colleges, from 12 percent attending these types of colleges in academic year 2009-2010 to 22 percent in 2010-2011. This increase corresponds with a drop in enrollment in four-year public colleges, where 56 percent were enrolled in 2009-2010 compared with 48 percent in 2010-2011.”

NCAS Students, photo used with permission.

Just as I was contemplating these things, I saw a NASA news release about the winners of the National Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program. Here’s how the program works: From all the students who apply, NCAS makes an initial selection of students who will participate in an interactive web-based activities to design and plan a robotic mission to Mars. From the results of the activities, NCAS selects the final students who will work on a three-day project at NASA.

While at NASA, as described in the press release, the students will form teams that “will establish fictional companies pursuing Mars exploration. Each team will develop, design and build a prototype rover, then use their prototypes to navigate a course, collect rocks and water and return to a home base.”

Not only does this project sound really fun, turns out it’s also a well-kept secret. I chatted with NCAS representative Deborah Hutchings, a NASA Aerospace Scholars Education Specialist, about this great opportunity. In 2011, they received 230 applications, from which 92 students were selected for the final all-expenses-paid trip to NASA. I like those odds!

The program has been offered for 10 years in Texas, and three years nationally. I asked Deborah why NASA believes in pursuing community college students.

Almost half the students in higher education across the nation are community college students. These students often are not given the same opportunities that students at four-year schools have. This program encourages these students to maintain a relationship with NASA as they return to school and eventually transfer to a four-year school to complete a STEM degree. Our hope is that they will then return to NASA as either an intern, co-op or full time employee.

Deborah in turn connected me with an alumni from this program, Jennifer Hembd. A mom no less! Jennifer decided to attend community college to save money on core classes. She was able to take many classes online, which allowed her to do the school work in the evening after her kids went to bed and avoid the additional expense of day care. It was her Introduction to Digital Media professor who shared the NCAS program with the class. Jennifer applied, got selected, and had a great time at NASA!

It was by far one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. Since I was very little I have always been fascinated with NASA but never thought I would ever be able to be a part of something so great. It was amazing to learn all that I did about both NASA and the future plans for missions to Mars by doing the written assignments for the program, and the onsite portion (my group went to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama) was fantastic! Not only was the program amazing, but I met some really great people from all over the country which I still speak with on a regular basis.

Curious to see if she loved community college as much as I did, I asked her how she thinks her community college experience rated against students who went to four-year colleges.

I am extremely happy that I started out at a community college. Being a nontraditional student, I feel it helped me to acclimate back into the academic process. Attending community college has opened up a plethora of opportunities to me and I have been fortunate enough to make some amazing faculty contacts, which I believe is much harder to do at larger schools.

Jennifer is now an intern at NASA, more specifically in the Information Resources Directorate at Johnson Space Center. There she work on the Shuttle Retirement Project where she archives all media aspects of the shuttle program and prepares to send that information to the National Archives.

If you are or know a community college student who would be interested in this program, applications for the next cycle are open until June 6th, 2012, so apply now!

WANTED: Rosie the Programmer

Rosie the Riveter
Rosie the Riveter, source from Flickr Commons

It’s a pretty uniform feeling among geeks with daughters: We want to raise strong, smart, independent girls who can stand above stereotypes.

So when I’m faced with marketing geared toward girls, I feel a mixture of emotions. Part of me is excited to see something cute and girly, and part of me is outraged at the stereotypes. Sometimes I feel feminists need to stand down so we can allow a little pink into our lives, and sometimes I am that feminist.

When I see Computer Science being marketed towards girls, I am especially torn. Being the only female programmer on my team (over and over, across my academic and professional career), I wouldn’t mind seeing more women in Computer Science. I chose this field accepting the men-to-women ratio as it was and it doesn’t bother me in the least, but a little variety couldn’t hurt either. Go CS girls, go!

On the flip side, there’s a fine line between encouraging females into Computer Science and making girls feel they are a demographic that needs special handling and treatment. Sometimes I just want to yell: Look at me, I’m a girl and I can read boy posters just fine! Oh, this computer is not pink and yet I will touch it! I appreciate the extra help and the special attention, but I can do computing and I can do it myself, thankyouverymuch.

The topic came up again recently upon finding the new-to-me website. Immediately I thought: “Girls in CS, yay! Oh wait, should I feel insulted?” There’s always that moment of doubt whether I’m being supported or targeted. In the last week I’ve been visiting the website often, just trying to make up my mind: How can we help more girls choose Computer Science? I took a convoluted path just to finally end up in CS, what would have convinced me as a teen to consider CS without the twisted path of self-discovery? Would finding resources like Dot Diva have helped me?

WBGH (a leading producer of educational media) and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) joined forces in 2008 to produce NIC, the New Image for Computing initiative. NIC’s original goal was to lure teens from the most underrepresented groups in Computer Science, namely African American and Hispanic teens, by revamping the image of computing. After a market research, they were surprised to find that the interest in Computer Science within the African American and Hispanic boys was fairly high despite their low attendance in the field, meanwhile girls across all races showed the lowest level of interest.

DotDiva market research data on interest in CS, by gender and race
Dot Diva market research data on interest in CS, by gender and race

From such findings, NIC changed their goal to focus on girls only and Dot Diva was born. This week I got the chance to chat with Julie Benyo, who was the principle investigator at the time the initiative was first funded, and she was willing to answer a few of my questions for me:

From the findings of the market research, how did you decide what content would be provided on

What we heard from girls during our market research (and in our experience with Dot Diva’s older sister project, Engineer Your Life), was that if they thought of computing at all, it was within the context of sitting alone in a dark room writing code all day. When we asked them what they wanted in a career, they said they wanted to work collaboratively with other people, be creative, and do something meaningful. Therefore, on the web site, that’s the side of computing we wanted to show. In fact, when we spoke with young women in the field, they all told us that those were exactly the characteristics that attracted them to their jobs, so it was easy to feature them and their work. Also, we know that high schoolers are aspirational, but they don’t aspire to be 50 year old women, so we chose women much closer in age to the girls themselves. I don’t believe that any of the women featured on the site was over the age of 30 at the time we worked with them.

Has there been other tactics developed in addition to the Dot Diva website?

On the Web site, there’s a parents and educators section that’s got lots of downloadable resources, including an annotated PPT presentation that educators can use in presentations to girls, a databank of free images folks can use to spruce-up their own recruiting efforts, and other materials.

In addition to the Web site, we have other free material — a poster, a brochure for girls, and a brochure (in 3 languages) for parents.

Has the NIC initiative considered the effects of popular media (namely TV shows) on career choices in teens? Is that why Dot Diva included a webisode?

We certainly know that TV and other media are important to girls, but we didn’t have enough funding for TV, and with the growing popularity of online media, we decided to do a webisode. We originally wanted this to be a 10-part series, and we have the outline for all 10, but we’ve been unsuccessful in securing funding for more episodes, so…

We scripted the initial webisode as an introduction to the entire series. So, while the one that’s available may seem shallow in terms of its focus on computing, we wanted to introduce the characters and get folks to “know” them before we went too much farther into what it means to be into computing. Also, we wanted the 2 main women characters to be polar opposites in terms of personalities in order to show that there’s no one TYPE that goes into computing.

Is there current or future work being made to add more content to the Dot Diva website?

The group at ‘GBH continues to seek funding to support and grow the initiative in the future, but it’s been a slow slog.

There is a grant pending with the National Science Foundation, but that’s all that’s going on at the moment. Unfortunately, everyone associated with the project is supported on grants, so unless there’s money, no one is spending any time on the project.

Those of us who “used” to work on it still occasionally post to the Dot Diva Facebook page, but this is because we truly believe in the initiative and can’t let it go, even though we’re no longer paid or officially associated with the site or WGBH.

It is nice to see people working with such dedication toward helping kids find their path. Sadly, funding is a recurring problem for well-meaning initiatives and we’ll have to continue to rely on Hollywood to break the computing stereotypes. While we’re not proud to admit the pull that TV has towards our life choices, the impact is undeniable. For example, physics experienced a boom in interest partly due to the popular show Big Bang Theory.

Spinning science in a positive light on TV to boost STEM attendance is no new concept. In 2005, Pentagon research grants totaling nearly $25,000 were used to train scientists on screenplay writing. The goal was to encourage more Americans teens to major in STEM fields to avoid an imminent crisis in scientific jobs vacancies for defense laboratories, many of which require citizenship or permanent residency.

I am not immune to the Hollywood effect, I nearly abandoned my career in programming to apply to med school because of Grey’s Anatomy. Yes, you’re allowed to laugh at me for that one. My point is, if we hope to see more girls major in Computer Science, we need a TV show with a female programmer who can kick butt and take names.

“Wind and Mr. Ug” Get Non-Euclidean

Gather up the kiddies because it’s storytime! Meet Wind, a lonely triangle living on a flat, yet mysterious world. Watch as curiosity compels her to unravel those mysteries and change her world forever… (Warning: Spoilers below the clip!)

“Wind and Mr. Ug ” is a shining example of education by stealth. It makes Möbius strips easy to understand and fun to play with, and I think it grants even very young children access to very grown-up concepts. You know, ‘hard’ stuff like Euclidean space and chirality, but also the practical applications of Möbius strips, like long-lasting conveyor belts and the ribbons on Olympic medals. I strongly recommend exploring the end of “Wind and Mr. Ug” in the real world with your kids. What happens if you cut a Möbius strip down the middle? What if you cut closer to the edge?