K’nex Builds Interest In STEM

There was much celebration!
There was much celebration!

We received six K’nex sets for my kids to test and review. We have two girls, aged 9.5 and 8, and a 5-year-old son. My son immediately opened a treasure chest full of parts and a book of 70 model ideas and started building. He was beyond excited for a K’nexosaurus Rex set, a motorized dinosaur build. The four other sets were aimed specifically at girls, and after a few minutes of looking at everything we’d received, my son wanted to open them all ASAP.

The sets aimed at the girls are meant to encourage interest in STEM. The sets included activities such as framing a house, building simple machines, and building a car with a motor. We received a plane and hang glider set, a carnival set with manual carousel, a set with two different houses, and a clubhouse set with a simple elevator, zip line, and the aforementioned car.

As soon as the girls got home, we started the build on the houses. I never played with K’nex as a kid, and as a LEGO builder I was very impressed with the packaging. The sets are well packed, with both the rods and the connectors color coded by length and shape. The pieces are also well-bagged in intuitive ways; main connectors were in their own bag and the pieces were organized in the order they’re used.

We had two main issues with the sets. First, some of the diagrams were really hard to mimic. As a 36-year-old, I found myself studying the pictures, trying to figure out which way pieces went and how they connected. While I wanted the kids to build independently, there were times that they really needed help.

More frustrating, though, was that the figurines in the girls’ sets kept falling apart. Legs and arms were popping out. The dolls’ hands were also not able to grip the zipline, and when using the elevator, the side of the clubhouse hit the figurine’s head multiple times. The company assured me that the loose limb issue has been fixed in the new sets they’re releasing, and I look forward to testing them to verify.

Much to my son’s disappointment, all the figurines are girls. K’nex has no plans at this time to add boys to the line as the sets are specifically targeting girls. The kids had a great time building, and my 9.5-year-old daughter was ultimately able to do a few full builds by herself. Every kid who has walked into our house for the last week has salivated at these sets and sat down to play for hours. Having played with the review sets, the new K’nex are on my list of things to buy for our home.

Sets can be purchased at multiple retailers; prices range from $12-$40.

Photos: Dani Weiss-Bronstein

STEM Strewing

You can’t go very far these days without hearing someone talk about STEM.



Why is STEM so important? Are your kids getting enough STEM at home? Should you incorporate more STEM into your day? And, if so, how? Continue reading STEM Strewing

10 Reasons You Need to Drop Everything and Build a Fort… Right Now

One time, as a child, I built a fantastic fort that withstood four New England winters.

I was so proud of it! I would spend entire afternoons holed up in that sacred place. I’d get lost in an imaginary world, or while away the hours lost in a favorite book. I’d love to know how many books were read in that space!

Of course, my brothers and I built many forts over the years, both indoors and outdoors, but the outdoor forts reigned supreme. Continue reading 10 Reasons You Need to Drop Everything and Build a Fort… Right Now

Windows Notepad for Toddlers and Preschoolers

It started simple enough. I had my then three-year-old daughter at work with me. I needed to talk with a coworker and needed something for my daughter to do. All I had was my work computer.

In a hurry, I closed all the programs on my Windows machine and opened up Notepad. Maximizing the program, I figured it was unlikely she could harm my computer. I quickly showed her the keyboard and let her hit as many keys as she wanted. I then turned to my coworker, thankful for the distraction.

The distraction that launched my daughter’s reading, writing, and typing exploration.

Continue reading Windows Notepad for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Build & Imagine: STEAM-Powered Dollhouses

Here at GeekMom we definitely love STEM toys, but when you add art into the mix to make STEAM, the result is a well-rounded toy built for imaginative, unending play. Laurie Peterson of Build & Imagine had this idea in mind when creating the StoryWalls dollhouses.

The vibrant playsets combine construction pieces with magnetic dolls that can be dressed up and accessorized. With bright colors—but very little pink!—and detailed, lively illustrations, the Build & Imagine sets encourage girls ages 4+ to be both builders and storytellers.

Continue reading Build & Imagine: STEAM-Powered Dollhouses

Half Hour of Code, Montessori Style: Check Out This Free Binary Counter

When I approached my four-year old’s teacher about Hour of Code, she invited me into the classroom to do a half hour lesson. My little ballerina goes to a Montessori, so the classroom is computer free.

“How hard can it be,” I thought. “I will just grab something off the internet and teach from that.”

So I told the teacher that I would be happy to do this.

I discovered how hard it is to plan a lesson for four-year-olds, both when following a lesson plan and making a new one.

I also created a binary counter that you can download and use with your children.

Copyright Claire Jennings

After giving a successful lesson on counting in binary and the Divide and Conquer algorithm, I have a new found respect for preschool teachers.

Continue reading Half Hour of Code, Montessori Style: Check Out This Free Binary Counter

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

STEM Education for 3-Year-Olds: Teaching Toddlers To Count in Binary

A long time computer science professional and mother of a young family, Lisa Seacat DeLuca is sharing her profession with both her twins and children everywhere.

Her board book, A Robot Story, started life as a Kickstarter campaign and is now available on Amazon. Easy to read and interactive, the book explains binary at a level a young child can understand by the simple method of counting to ten.

The interactive “switches” in the board book that my daughter pretends to control based on the binary numbers provides a meaningful way to equate ones and zeros to on and off. Additionally, it expands the child’s vocabulary and uses industry jargon in a friendly way.

My four-year-old daughter even asked me what “allocate” means. The best part fo this? She later used the word to describe something else in her life.

But at the same time, the book is simple enough and short enough to read to an infant.

GeekMom had a chance to talk with Lisa about her career, family, and book’s concepts:

Continue reading STEM Education for 3-Year-Olds: Teaching Toddlers To Count in Binary

The Ultimate List of Tutorials, Apps, and Games to Teach Kids Coding

Welcome to the Computer Science Education Week! By now you may have heard of this little thing called Hour of Code, a global initiative from Code.org and CS Ed Week to get everyone—adults and kids alike!—to try just one hour of programming. Why? No, not so everyone can become programmers, but because exposure to programming can teach logic, problem solving, critical thinking, and demystify technology. Oh, and it’s also fun!

So if you’re ready to try programming, but you’re not quite ready to install a compiler and hack your first “Hello, World!” in a text editor, here’s a very long (and we’re thankful for that) list of online courses, tutorials, apps, and games that teach kids (and adults!) to program. Continue reading The Ultimate List of Tutorials, Apps, and Games to Teach Kids Coding

Cardboard STEM: 25 Ideas for All Those BOXES

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

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

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

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

Combating Geek Prejudice… But Not the Way You Think

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

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

“Mom, you’ve never coded anything?!”

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

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

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

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

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

Curiosity Killed the Furby, the Cell Phone, and the Laptop

Furby horrifies me.

I was NEVER a fan, and my kids knew it. My daughter, the evil genius that she is, would place Furby in my dresser drawers. As I would put away laundry, Furby would wake up and start talking. Naturally I would start screaming when my undergarments voiced a yawn and cried about hunger pains.

Sometimes I wonder if my mom bought my daughter a Furby as retribution for all the horrible things I did in my childhood. So, when I discovered that my son took Furby apart to see the components that made it function, I wasn’t as mad as I should have been.

I didn’t know it at the time, but deconstructed Furby was the beginning of our journey to harness my son’s curiosity. Fortune favored me because I eventually stumbled upon a geeky dad with the answer to my problem.

Continue reading Curiosity Killed the Furby, the Cell Phone, and the Laptop

Let Your Pre-Readers Program Too

GeekMom Maryann has already reviewed Wonder Workshop’s Dash and Dot robots in detail a few months ago, but I’m back for more exciting news from this robotic duo. The company has now released a new app, appropriately and perhaps redundantly named Wonder, that makes it easier than ever for your pre-readers to program.

Moreover, Wonder Workshop is introducing a new Wonder League Robotics Competition! Teams of kids 6 to 11 years of age must be registered by November 1st to compete. The winners will receive a STEM field trip to California to visit Universal Studios, EA, Google, and more.

Continue reading Let Your Pre-Readers Program Too

Tinker, Pilot, Maker, Oh My! 3 Picture Books Starring Girls Who Love to Build

Interstellar Cinderella © Chronicle Books
Interstellar Cinderella © Chronicle Books

Books about princesses and ballerinas are always fun reads, but it’s also great to find books starring heroines who also enjoy getting their hands dirty and figuring out how things work. Here are three charming and notable picture book picks featuring girls who love to tinker, fix, build, and make.

© Chronicle Books
© Chronicle Books

Interstellar Cinderella, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt

The classic fairy tale meets sci-fi in this lovely and welcome twist on the story of Cinderella. Cinderella doesn’t dream of living in a castle or meeting her prince, but of getting her own ship to fix and tinker with.

All of the familiar elements are there: the unpleasant stepmother and stepsisters, the prince, and the ball, and Underwood’s take on other parts of the tale are both clever and obviously well thought out. Cinderella’s mouse friend is a robot, she comes to the Prince’s rescue, and her response to his marriage proposal makes picking up this book worth it alone. And I’m not certain, but I like to think there’s an intentional nod to Doctor Who in there as well.

© Harry N. Abrams
© Harry N. Abrams

Rosie Revere, Engineer, written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts

Rosie loves to build and tinker, but when one of her inventions goes haywire, can she find the courage to keep trying? Not only does Rosie Revere, Engineer include both colorful characters and a great jumping off point to talk about history, the story gives the rare message that it’s okay to fail. In fact, failure can be celebrated, as long as you keep trying.

This important theme and the wonderfully detailed illustrations of wacky gizmos make this a book that we revisit time and time again.

© Dial Books
© Dial Books

Violet the Pilot, written and illustrated by Steve Breen

Violet is a mechanical genius who loves disassembling and reassembling things to see how they work. When she turns eight years old, her dreams turn to the sky. She works hard to make her own airplane, even as the other kids avoid her or tease her. Her parents support her, which I loved to see in the story, and she and her best friend Orville never give up in their work to reach the clouds.

Violet the Pilot has a vintage feel with soft illustrations, and can even begin conversations about life before selfies and social media.

Would You Let Your Kids Play With Fusion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of those best practices.

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

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

Clynes closes the last page with this reminder.

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

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

GeekMom received a sample for review purposes

America Needs More STEM…But…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STEM and the Humanities Work Hand-in-Hand

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

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

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

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

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

What Can We Do as Role Models?

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

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

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

Between the Bookends: May 2015

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

This merry month of May the GeekMoms have been stuck on Mars, trapped in a strange town, debating the merits of STEM and creativity in our schools, and solving puzzles in a future dystopia. Check out our reading lists as we get ready for the summer.

Continue reading Between the Bookends: May 2015

A New Season of ‘SciGirls’ Premieres in April

© PBS Kids
© PBS Kids

SciGirls is back this April with six brand-new episodes! As recent new fans of the PBS Kids show, which features real girls showing a real love of STEM, my kindergartener and I can’t wait to see what new science adventures are waiting for them in this third season.

The theme of the new season is “citizen science.” Here’s the latest info about what that means for the SciGirls:

Citizen science is the hottest new STEM frontier that engages the general public –and kids! – in real science. Scientists worldwide invite ordinary people—like the SciGirls—to observe and record data about everything from birds to beaches, monarch butterflies to maple trees. The data is then shared with scientists, who use it to generate new scientific knowledge.

New episodes premiere in April on your local PBS station, so check the listings to catch the girls in action.

SciGirls Season 3
© PBS Kids


The new season will also will also be available online nationwide starting April 15 on the official SciGirls web site.

Fund This: SkyMath Delivers Math Adventures on the iPad

Tracking Pixel

Image: Circumventure Learning
Image: Circumventure Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post is sponsored by Circumventure Learning.

SciGirls: Real-Life STEM Role Models in Action

© PBS Kids
© PBS Kids

“Mom, this is interesting! Come and watch with me!”

The second my kindergartener started watching SciGirls, she was hooked. As she’s a big fan of FETCH! With Ruff Ruffman, I knew she enjoyed watching real kids take on challenges and learn real-life science, but SciGirls captured her attention in a different way. SciGirls features diverse groups of girls tackling problems and learning about the world around them.

The PBS Kids show, now available on Netflix and on a four-disc DVD set, gives kids real role models to inspire them and shows how fun STEM challenges can be.

© PBS Kids
© PBS Kids

SciGirls is a PBS Kids show that might have flown under your radar. It’s not aimed at the usual preschool crowd that tunes in every morning to see Daniel Tiger and Elmo; the target audience is tween girls. Thanks to the intriguing mix of real girls, fascinating STEM topics, and a little bit of reality show drama (will they finish the challenge in time?), the show can appeal to a wider age range. My six-year-old might not grasp all of the science and engineering concepts on the show, but she gets a basic understanding in every episode.

In fact, she’s most interested in the girls themselves, often asking me to repeat their names to make sure she gets them right. PBS Kids always does an admirable job of diversity in their shows (don’t get me started on how much I love what they’ve done on Odd Squad), and seeing girls just like her in SciGirls has had a noticeable impact.

One morning after finishing her breakfast, my daughter held up her empty yogurt cup. “Mom! We need to recycle this cup and turn it into a flower pot!” SciGirls had given her the idea, she proudly told me. The team in “Going Green,” who were concerned about how much trash wasn’t being recycled at school, worked hard to turn yogurt cups into seed starters—and inspired my daughter to do the same.

Recycling inspired by the SciGirls. Inset © PBS Kids
Our recycling project inspired by the SciGirls. Inset © PBS Kids

If you’re looking for a way to get your daughter (or son) excited about STEM, SciGirls is a perfect way to share the enthusiasm of curious kids who aren’t afraid to take on a challenge. The series is ramping up for its third season this spring.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day! Now With More Quizzes

Mrs. Virginia Davis, a riveter in the assembly and repair department of the Naval air base. Photo credit: The Library of Congress on Flickr
Mrs. Virginia Davis, a riveter in the assembly and repair department of the Naval air base. Photo credit: The Library of Congress on Flickr

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, everyone! Ada Lovelace, if you don’t know about her already, is generally considered to be the first computer programmer. This fact is surprising because she lived in the mid-1800s. So, you know, way before computers. How is this possible? She was a mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage. Babbage had devised a plan for a mechanical computer called the Analytical Engine, which unfortunately remained theoretical due to financial reasons amongst other things. Lovelace, in turn, designed some algorithms that could run on Babbage’s theoretical machine, making her the first computer programmer, theoretically! She has a really cool history, which GeekMom Jenny discusses in the GeekMom Book.

In honor of today’s leading lady, I built a fun quiz about some important discoveries and inventions. Can you correctly guess which were made by women, and which were not? Take the quiz and find out!

[playbuzz-game game=”http://www.playbuzz.com/geekmom11/stem-women-or-not-women”]

Space Opportunities and News

Image: NASA

Did you know that there is an international competition for high school and college level drone engineering teams? The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International hosted the 12th Annual Student Unmanned Air Systems Competition from June 18th to the 22nd in Maryland this year. According to the Southern Maryland Newspaper association teams from the U.S., India, Israel, Turkey, and others competed this year, building autonomous planes from scratch that could fly routes to hit prescribed waypoints and safely conduct abort scenario drills. The drone systems can compete in a number of different categories. Although this year’s competition is just past, this might be something to consider for the high school students who have gotten too blasé about robotics competitions.

Another opportunity for student scientists is the NASA Rock On! program. According to PilotOnline.com: “The students in the program build experiments in three days that measure acceleration, spin rate, radiation, humidity, pressure and temperature during a rocket flight.” On June 26th, a suborbital sounding rocket launched from Wallops Island carrying payloads designed by the student participants.

According to Wired magazine, there’s a new partnership between biological research and aeronautics brewing. While large animals can be tracked with electronic collars that can transmit information to orbiting satellites, any collar with enough oomph to communicate that way is too big to fit on smaller animals such as birds, small mammals, or even insects. So the Smithsonian and the National Zoo have pioneered an innovative collaboration with United Airlines (and others) called Partners in the Sky. United will allow some of its planes to be outfitted with antennas that can pick up the tinier signals from tinier tracking collars, and as they fly across the country hither and yon, they’ll be recording whatever signals they get from the ground below them. Then they’ll relay the information back to the biologists at the zoo. That’s a really smart partnership, and one of the few things to make me feel better about commercial air travel these days.

The spacecraft Cassini is celebrating its 10th anniversary in orbit around Saturn. Cassini launched in 1997 and was able to conduct observations of Jupiter on its way to Saturn, arriving there in 2004. It dropped a probe on the moon Titan, which successfully relayed information back to Cassini and back to Earth. It’s another mission that has long outlived its planned lifespan (in this case, four years) and has gone above and beyond its mission parameters to keep feeding us useful information. Most recently, it is being reported that it may have found an ocean of liquid water on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Cassini is currently scheduled to remain active through 2017.

How a Hacker Slumber Party Gets Girls Into Code

Pearl Hacks logo

When Gina Likins walked into Carroll Hall at the University of North Carolina, she was reminded of the sleepovers of her youth. But this was no ordinary slumber party. This was Pearl Hacks, a 24-hour girls-only hackathon focused on getting young women excited about technology and programming.

In this piece at Opensource.com, Likins outlines the event’s workshops and goals. She also explains just why such events are important for young women around the world:

“All of this was fun, but also very important. The percentage of computer science degrees that are being earned by women has decreased in the past 20 years. So, why were more women earning degrees two decades ago than they are now? One suspected reason for this trend is that women feel unwelcome in the computer industry due to the predominance of men at conferences, coding meetups, and hackathons, which are a central part of coder culture. Some female and male programmers have started female-centric hackathons to help create spaces where women can feel more welcome and at ease.”

Read the full article at Opensource.com.

Book Review: Women of Steel and Stone

Women of Steel and Stone. Image Chicago Review Press.
Women of Steel and Stone. Image Chicago Review Press.

Women of Steel and Stone contains the stories of women architects, engineers, and landscape designers from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, in the era of the women’s suffrage movement and shortly after the Industrial Revolution. This was a time when women were struggling to prove their equal worth as employees in any profession, let alone in a profession deemed a man’s job—such as working with, well, steel and stone.

One of my favorite chapters from Women of Steel and Stone was about the architect Julia Morgan, who designed the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. Being a Californian myself and having visited Hearst Castle a couple of times, I was both interested in learning more about this architect and appalled that I hadn’t heard of her in any detail yet. Morgan was born and raised in Oakland, where she finished high school—not a small feat for a woman of her time. She then went on to attend the University of California, Berkeley for engineering, and proceeded to become the first female student in architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When she returned to San Francisco a few years later, she landed only a few architecture jobs. That was until the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which destroyed most of the city, except Morgan’s buildings! Her business boomed after that and the rest of history. Being an acquaintance of William Hearst’s mother, Phoebe, Hearst hired Morgan to build what was supposed to be a modest bungalow. As Hearst’s success increased exponentially, so did his plans for his estate. Morgan worked all week on her other contracts in San Francisco, riding down to San Simeon on the weekends to work on Hearst’s Castle. In her lifetime, she finished Hearst’s mega mansion as well as more than 700 buildings in California.

This is just a digest of one of the chapters in this book. I was also pleasantly surprised to find a woman in the book who shares a last name with me, landscape designer Marian Cruger Coffin, whose background matches my husband’s family line. So who knows, maybe one of my daughters has landscape architecture in her blood!

One of the interesting things about the women in this book is their unique opinions about being a woman in a man’s field. Some showed immense talent but quit the business in disgust for the poor treatment they reserved, some were morally opposed to the special treatment of women in architecture on the grounds that there should be no difference between male and female counterparts, and some made being a successful female architect look positively effortless.

My only negative comment on this non-fiction is that I really wish it had been designed as a coffee table book. While the book does contain some small black-and-white images, full-size color images on big glossy pages would have enticed readers and inspired awe in the beauty of these women’s works so much more effectively. Nevertheless, Women of Steel and Stone is fascinating. Its large font and abridged biographies make it perfect for teenagers or adults looking for a quick—but meaningful—read.

I can’t conclude without mentioning how much I love the title, Women of Steel and Stone. Such a powerful imagery. I don’t think the author could have picked a cooler title, pun intended.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

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 Beyond...in 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.

Talking Cars, STEM, and Moms With One of the Women Behind the New Ford Mustang

The women behind the Mustang. Image: Ford.

I spoke with Ford Vehicle Line Director Marcy Fisher about working on the new 2015 Ford Mustang, getting kids into STEM careers, and her path to becoming an engineer. Guess who one of the people she credits with helping her find that path?

That’s right—her mom.

The Ford Mustang is one of the most iconic American cars ever made, so its redesign was a big deal, especially if you happen to work at Ford. I asked Marcy what it was like finding out that she’d be working on such an incredible car. She said it was both exciting and a little daunting.

“It’s like a dream, in this company, everybody wants to be on Team Mustang. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, but at the same time, really, a little bit scary,” she said. It wasn’t a matter of simply doing the job, but of making all those fans happy. “You don’t want to be known as the person who messed up the 50th Anniversary Mustang!”

It wasn’t just Marcy behind the new design, but a whole team and she gives them a lot of the credit for being vested in the project and wanting to make this Mustang the best Mustang ever. “Everyone wants to work on this vehicle,” she said. “They’re excited to go the extra mile. We all know what the Mustang is, and that we have to deliver that for the customer. We can’t let the customer down.”

The All-New Ford Mustang
The 2015 Ford Mustang. Image: Ford.

I also asked Marcy if she’d faced any challenges as a woman engineer, especially in the very male-dominated automotive industry, and her answer is one that every woman and every girl should take to heart.

“I think people feed a little bit off of what you believe your own capabilities are, and so, I’ve never thought of myself differently because I’m a woman. I don’t think about myself as a woman in the automotive industry. I think about myself as an engineer in the automotive industry.”

She says that in her 28-year career, she has always focused on simply doing the best job possible and that the quality of her work overcomes the objections or stereotypes of others. “Be great at your job. Always put forth your best effort and your best foot, have the best interests of the customers at heart, and let that guide your driving force,” she said. “In the end, people see what you’re capable of.”

As to her decision to become an engineer, she gives a lot of the credit to her mom in helping guide her choice. “I was always good at math and science and was lucky enough to have a mother who was very influential and who was also, I think, very ahead of her time,” she says. “She spent a lot of time looking at actually what do I want out of a position and it kept coming back to engineering.”

Marcy also had this last piece of advice for girls looking to pursue careers in STEM fields:

“The main thing is to be true to yourself. And no matter what situations or decisions you’re facing, it’s always okay to be exactly who you are. You should celebrate that and not try to fit into a world that you think you need to somehow conform to to be part of the culture of that group.”

STEM Science Stations Float Kids’ Boats

“Sink or Float” STEM Science Station. Image Courtesy © Lakeshore Learning

My preschooler is constantly begging to “do science,” and I am always happy to oblige. I was delighted to learn that Lakeshore Learning, a toy store specializing in educational toys, is offering new “STEM Science Stations” to encourage science exploration. As big of a fan as my four-year-old is of splashing in water, I knew we had to start with the “Sink or Float” kit to explore buoyancy.

The “Sink or Float” Science Station is packed with 8 activity cards and materials to complete each one. The card features one question to kick off the activity, and the little learner is tasked with experimenting with the floating and sinking items in the kit. On the back of each card, there are additional questions to help guide the activity, along with discussion questions to explore the buoyancy principles behind it.

While the cards provide fantastic guidance for the kids getting their hands wet, to my dismay I found that there are no facts or additional information to answer the inevitable follow-up questions. When pressed to explain the how and why behind the ability of some things to both sink AND float, I found myself unable to answer coherently. If I had prepared ahead of time — which I will for next time! — my daughter would have taken more away from our playtime.

The other STEM Station activity boxes offered by Lakeshore Learning cover magnets and motion. The kits are better suited to groups such as schools and homeschool groups to fully participate in the activity and discussion, but they can work well for a snowy afternoon at home with the kids.

Lakeshore Learning is offering a special discount for GeekMom readers! Use this coupon for 20% off one nonsale item online or in stores.

GeekMom received a promotional copy for review purposes.

Canada vs. Mars in Temperature Death Match

Image Courtesy of NASA
Image Courtesy of NASA

OK, I was totally taken in by all the stories which claimed that places in Canada (the original soundbite I heard mentioned Winnipeg) were colder than what the Curiosity rover was experiencing on Mars. It sounded so plausible–and it is possible there are times that the coldest places on Earth can be colder than the warmest places on Mars.

However, the indefatigable team at PolitiFact.com have determined that it is not true right now.

As our own Patricia Vollmer has pointed out, the recent cold spell had some journalists overdosing on hyperbole. The root of the problem here is that the temperature numbers were comparing apples and oranges. So reporting from Winnipeg, Manitoba recorded -31 deg Celsius with the wind chill down to -50 deg C. Some of the most recent data reported by the Mars Curiosity rover measured temperatures of about -30 deg C–so woohoo! Canada is colder than Mars!

Well, not quite.

When we measure temperature and wind chill, we’re measuring the temperature of the air. When Curiosity measures temperature, she’s measuring the temperature of the ground–very different things. When Curiosity measures the air temperature around her it ranges between -198 and -76 deg C–much, much colder than even the recent polar vortex, plus windchill, was producing in Winnipeg.

I have to admit, I got caught up in the hype. And it is still possible that there are times and places where comparing air temperatures will still give you a warmer day on Mars than on Earth. But that didn’t happen this time, and I’ll try to remember to be more skeptical next time. Live and learn!

Ants… in… Spaaace!

Image: Edmund Scientifics

Orbital Sciences delayed Wednesday’s planned launch of a re-supply mission to the International Space Station. But what are they shipping to the ISS?

Along with fresh food, water, and clothes, this mission will also have a supply of ants.

These ants aren’t uninvited hitch-hikers, they’re VIPs getting a ride into space courtesy of a NASA project to partner with K-12 educational programs. This particular research effort will look at the ants’ foraging patterns and how their search patterns while looking for food change depending on their perception of how dense their population is. Previous ant research on the Space Shuttle and Space Station has shown that ants can change their behavior quite a bit in a microgravity environment, such as their tunneling patterns.

In this case, common pavement ants on Earth tend to search for food differently if they know there are a lot of compatriots in the area vs. if they are spread thinly. They assess their density based on the frequency at which they bump into other ants as they’re searching. The question is if they use the same density determination and if they change their search patterns the same way in space as they do on a downtown sidewalk.

Good scientific research needs control groups to compare to the experimental subjects, and in this case the controls will be ant colonies in hundreds of K-12 classrooms around the world. According to CU-Boulder:

Teachers interested in participating in the ant experiments may contact [Education Program Director] Countryman at countrym@colorado.edu. More information on the project for teachers and students will be online beginning in mid-January at http://www.bioedonline.org.

This is just one small example of the kind of research that ISS is doing, combined with the mission to get kids more involved in space science.

GoldieBlox: An Interview with Debbie Sterling and a GeekMom’s Take On Girls and STEM

After I interviewed the founder of GoldieBlox, events unfolded that made it seem prudent to hold off  posting until the dust had settled. I have so much to express about this topic and waiting in terms of Internet time (which has been proven to move faster) poses the danger of being behind the current events. But the topics I want to address reach beyond this current media explosion, and the decisions GoldieBlox are making exemplify my points.

I spoke with Debbie Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox, right after she launched her new video, and a new product, for her line of toys meant to draw girls into engineering. Her experience both as a child herself and as a female engineer led her to research and observe what attracts girls and how she could support encouraging more girls into the engineering field.  This is how GoldieBlox was born: Take the attractive allure of a character and a storyline, and role model engineering to create a comfortable context in which girls will become interested in engineering.

For those who don’t know, GoldieBlox is a set of parts that come with a storybook. In the course of the story, kids build what the main character is building, resulting in a finished product that matches the story and has imparted an engineering concept or skill. The books also contain ideas and plans for other things you can build.

Sterling says that all of her research has resulted in this product that is resonating with her target audience by integrating experiences girls may be familiar with and that her main message through her characters is, “Take risks, don’t give up, failure is OK.”

Sterling is proud of her product and what it has done for the girls she is trying to inspire. She recalled one of her favorite stories about two daughters whose mother wrote to Sterling, saying her girls were obsessed with Goldieblox. They played with it non-stop, singing songs about engineering, and the characters in the story. That kind of enthusiasm and integration of engineering into play was exactly what Sterling was hoping for.

Her motto, “more than just a princess,” not only guides her product line, but also inspired her to launch two videos. The first, a parody of “We are the Champions” features a bunch of girls taking over the toy store aisles, apparently to demand more choice in what is offered to girls. The second, just launched, featured a wicked Rube Goldberg machine and was a parody of the Beastie Boys song “Girls.” Sterling says the intention of the video was to take a misogynistic song and reclaim it, sending a message that girls deserve more options. She says she is not trying to bash or shame princesses but that girls need more role models and experiences that are alternatives to the current marketing trend.

Since I have spoken with her, there has been a conflict with the Beastie Boys who questioned her use of their song, especially in light of the late Adam Yauch last wishes that none of his songs be used for advertisements. Goldieblox was heavily criticized for their immediate legal actions in trying to secure their right to use the song, and have now apparently backed down and changed the song to an instrumental “Princess Machine.”

photo courtesy of GoldieBlox
© GoldieBlox

I am less interested in whether or not this was a well devised marketing ploy (after all, even their name is a parody), or the fumbling of a very young and inexperienced entrepreneur. I’ll leave the writing about fair use and parody to others. It seems pretty clear that they should have done more research around their song choice and considered whether this move was worth the backlash.

I am more interested in dissecting the value of the product itself. I am a girl, I have a daughter. We are a family who is heavily invested in education and the advancement of STEAM concepts and skills for children (I like STEAM over STEM- the integration of art is essential, in my opinion.) We are exactly her target audience. Unfortunately, we are also less than enthusiastic.

I was upfront with Sterling that my daughter found the toy kind of boring and not very open-ended. This could be because it did not connect with my daughter (it happens), or it could be that my daughter has access to a lot of building materials already. Sterling acknowledged that they were working on this by increasing the number of building suggestions in the book that accompanies the toy, and that they have launched a new part of their website dedicated to Goldieblox fan inventions. It is her hope this will help extend the play and increase the opportunities for inventing beyond the storylines in the books.

Here’s the thing: I think Goldieblox is coming from a genuine place, wanting to help close the gender gap in the STEM fields and provide more options in the toy spectrum. I think they are excellent at marketing. I also think they are a young company and a bit confused about their participation in the “girls need to be this now” trend which is, in my opinion, just as bad as the market telling girls they must be princesses swathed in purple and pink. Is this a different option when the colors are still pastels (primarily purple), the characters are attractive, and the storyline includes a princess pageant?

Sterling told me they chose that storyline for their second product because most girls would have experience with a talent show, but that is not what they called it. They called it a “princess pageant” and clearly two of the female characters want the title. The message feels a little like, “We know you like princesses so we are going to cater to that but it’s not good enough. You have to be more.” They are certainly not the only ones. The desire to inspire and empower girls is growing, as is the opportunity to convince parents of the need. That is the real issue.

I was not particularly into dolls and dressing up when I was young, but my daughter is. Raised after two brothers in a very gender neutral household, my daughter chose pink and purple and sparkle as soon as she could say the words. While it’s true that she often has a sword tucked into her fairy wings, the fact is she is everything this movement says is wrong. I think we have to be very careful about vilifying that which our girls value. Not every girl needs or wants to be “more than just a princess, ” that a princess is more than we are giving them credit for.

In our house a princess is kind and just, knows her international relations, speaks many languages, or has many skills in order to assist in running a kingdom. Princesses are like figures in mythology; for little girls they represent all of the qualities of being human that they are trying on as they figure out who they are. All princesses are unique, just like all girls are.

Sterling disagreed with me on my concern about the message that girls have to be good at everything. She says that her characters are not geniuses nor perfect, but in fact messy, quirky, and willing to make mistakes. While I have not seen much evidence of that yet, I am more concerned with the battle cry at the expense of everything else, particularly the attraction to fancy and the exploration of what beauty means to each individual girl. Those things are always used as an excuse as to why girls don’t ‘x,y, or z.’ That simply isn’t the case. It is by being supported in our interests, whatever they may be, that allows us to be open to new possibilities.

Finally, I questioned Sterling about focusing on girls. She insists that it is necessary in order to close the STEM gender gap. Even so, many boys like the product as well. She feels it is generally gender neutral and that her products will become more so with the introduction of a boy character next year. I know she has done a lot of research about what engages girls, and if this product gets even one girl interested in engineering, then bravo!

I would suggest however, that catering to girls like this is not the only way to achieve a more balanced range of options. Despite the current trend in the Maker/STEM movement, to promise a development of passion with purchase, I think many girls and their families are getting tired of all the marketing targeted at them, telling them who they should be, particularly in relationship to their gender. It is just as effective to buy your girl a bunch of building materials and invest your time introducing them to engineering skills and concepts. You want to make an engineer out of your daughter? Build with her. Make and hack things instead of buying them. Take her to appropriate community events and introduce her to female mentors who serve as role models.

It is not the lack of options or opportunities right now that is keeping girls from seeking STEM careers, it is what happens when they get there. The reality is that many fields of science and medical graduate students are more than half women, but eventually the women leave. Not because they played with Barbie or princesses two decades ago, but because they opted to have a family and found the workplace culture and long mandatory work hours to be completely incompatible. As a former scientist I know said to me, “Even if we raise a generation of girls to want to be engineers, will we give them maternity leave in twenty years?”

Look, I think the product itself is slickly designed and fun for many girls, and I encourage you to take a look if you think it might interest your daughter. For me, though, it introduced an intense scrutiny of what we are buying. Those girls in the video didn’t set up that “princess machine,” it was a piece of excellent marketing designed by adults to sell a product. Even if it was meant to empower and inspire, (and perhaps for many it did) it is still a message that is telling my daughter through words and images what she should be, what she should like (or not).

So until we get to a place where we can honestly and earnestly support boys and girls in their own visions, I am going to continue to question any attempt to change the world through a product. It is relationships and experiences that create new generations of innovators, not products, and if we want those innovators (boys and girls) to be engaged and satisfied in STEM careers then we need to focus on the real issues of culture and policy to see that change.