Back To School 2015: Electronics, Gadgets, and Shiny Stuff!

Back to School \ Image: flickr user Jesuscm some rights reserved
Back to School \ Image: Flickr user Jesuscm, some rights reserved.

It’s time to head back to school and in this year’s planning guide, we have a little bit of style, a little bit of gadgets, and a lot of coolness. So let’s get started!

Electronic Accessories
Witti Dotti ($69.99)
This app-controlled pixel light will keep you posted on all of your notifications, with the added bonus of being able to customize the lights to suit your style.

Photo App Keyboards \ Image: Photojojo
Photo App Keyboards \ Image: Photojojo

Keyboard Shortcut Skins ($30)
Keyboard Shortcut Skins by Photojojo are one of my go-to accessories for my MacBook Pro. I have the one for Final Cut Pro and it’s a huge help when trying to learn the program. Shortcut Skins are also available for Photoshop (CS4/CS5/CS6), Aperture (2.0/3.0), Final Cut Pro/Express, or Lightroom (2/3/4/5). The available keyboard models include the MacBook with black or white keys, Macbook Air 13″, Apple Ultra-Thin Keyboard w/o Numeric Keypad, and the Apple Ultra-Thin Keyboard w/Numeric Keypad. Use coupon code: GEEKMOM for $5 off!

Scosche’s freeKEY ($49.99)
For the student on the go, check out this roll-up bBuetooth keyboard.

Ultimate Screen Care Kit by Dust Off ($24.99)
Electronic users should have one of these in every bag they carry. It comes with a bottle of screen cleaner, a cleaning shammy, and a mobile cleaning pad.

Power Tap \ Image courtesy of Thumbs Up UK
Power Tap \ Image courtesy of Thumbs Up UK

Power USB Tap by Thumbs Up UK ($19.71)
The Power Tap is a fun and unique way to “turn on” power to your device for charging. The blue/red light tells you if the device is charging or not and offers a great little nightlight to any room.

Scanmarker ($79.99)
I’m not a fan of highlights in my textbooks because I usually end up typing my notes anyway. With the Scanmarker, I can just scan my notes in directly from my textbook without marking them up (makes for better resale value as well). The Scanmarker lets you capture text and then edit it on your computer.

Gunnar Optiks Gaming/Computer Glasses ($50-150 depending on whether you need a prescription)
These glasses ease eye strain for anyone who spends a lot of time looking at screens (computer or gaming). They really work. It’s not magic; it’s a combination of anti-glare coating and amber tinting.

Nyrius Aries Prime ($199.99)
Apple users have been able to stream their PC to a TV with the help of Apple TV and now Windows users can do the same thing with Nyrius Aries Prime. I use this at home when previewing my slideshows for class and I love it. My son loves it too because he likes to stream his Minecraft games to our TV.

Inateck MP 1300 13.3 Inch Macbook Air Sleave \ Image courtesy of Inateck
Inateck MP 1300 13.3-inch MacBook Air Sleeve \ Image courtesy of Inateck

Inateck MacBook Sleeve ($16.99)
A soft, felted sleeve for your MacBook. This gender neutral case allows you to transport your laptop in your backpack or purse in style.

Lumo Lift Posture and Activity Tracker ($79.99)
Posture is something everyone needs work on here and there. The Lumo Lift will tell you when you are slouching and keep a record of how much time a day you spend in a good posture. It’s a nifty little device for those of us who spend our day sitting at a desk and are not always aware of how we are sitting until it’s too late.

Kinivo BTH220 ($20.99)
I’ve had more than one pair of Kinivo headphones and for the price, they’re pretty good. These are over-the-ear headphones that work via Bluetooth, with buttons to play your music as well as make and receive phone calls.

Audiofly’s AF33 Headphones ($39.99)
If wired headphones are more your thing, check out Audiofly’s AF33. They may be on the pricey side, but they offer noise isolation and are comfy to wear.

Scosche’s goBAT 6000 ($54.99)
I love this little battery charger because it doesn’t require any cables. Just plug it into the wall when the battery dies and wait for the red light to go off. It’s also lightweight compared to other chargers and is small enough to fit into your back pocket.

Coffee Cup Power Inverter V2.0 ($34.99)
When my husband first saw this, he thought it was a mug you can heat up in the car. He was kind of close. It’s a charger that looks like a coffee cup and can accommodate up to two wall chargers and one USB cable. The best part is that it fits in your cup holder so there’s no awkward worrying about where to put it while it’s plugged in. 

Tablift ($59.99)
My brother saw this and thought I would be lazy for using it. He obviously hasn’t tried to lay in bed while watching lectures and taking notes. Not to mention, it’s great for keeping your hands free while watching a movie, so you can eat your snacks. I set it up the other day to hold my iPad to help me follow directions on a sewing pattern. Tablift helped keep it off the floor and out of my pup’s mouth. 

Stress Relievers and Fun

Recess for the Soul \ Image courtesy of
Recess for the Soul \ Image courtesy of

Recess for the Soul by Bernie DeKoven
Meditations on the mind’s “inner playground” are perfect for teachers to practice with kids of all ages. Parents too. Check out the recording Recess for the Soul by Bernie DeKoven to practice exercises for “inner swing set” and “teeter-taughter teachings.” It’s $20 for the CD, $9.99 for the iTunes album, or $0.99 per track.

Oregon Scientific Aroma Diffuser Elite ($99.99)
Who doesn’t want to wake up to the smell of their favorite essential oil? Instead of waking you up with a noise you just hit the snooze on, this alarm clock wakes you up to the essential oil of your choice. If you are not allergic, I suggest starting the day off with peppermint. It’s my favorite.

DreamPad 26 \ Image courtesy of ILS
DreamPad 26 \ Image courtesy of ILS

Integrated Listening System’s Dreampad 26 with Optional Bluetooth Receiver ($209)
Not everyone wants to fall asleep to white noise or music. Integrated Listening System’s Dreampad 26 has a built-in speaker that lets you plug in your device and listen to your heart’s content, while not disturbing those around you. If you want to keep your device charging while you sleep, pick up the optional Bluetooth receiver as well.

Lunch Box Jokes \ Image courtesy of
Lunch Box Jokes \ Image courtesy of

Lunchbox Jokes: 100 Fun Tear-Out Notes for Kids ($7.99)
Add extra humor to cafeteria time with Lunchbox Jokes: 100 Fun Tear-Out Notes for Kids. It’s especially good for 1st to 3rd grades.

Color Me Crazy: Insanely Detailed Creations to Challenge Your Skills and Blow Your
Pick up some colored pencils, make yourself a blanket fort, and color your cares away in this adult coloring book. I enjoy coloring in mine when I have a headache or when I’m anxious and it helps me forget the pain.

Scrabble Twist ($19.99)
Scrabble Twist is my newest addiction. It’s small enough to fit into a purse and has multiplayer and solo game features. A single game lasts about a minute, so it offers a quick break from studying. 


Xventure SmartCord Sling bag \ Image courtesy of Brakentron
Xventure SmartCord Sling bag \ Image courtesy of Bracketron

Bracketron: SmartCord Sling Bag ($24.99)
The Braketron: SmartCord Sling Bag will protect your tablet/smartphone and other personal belongings from the weather and has a special holder to make sure your headphones are close by. Great for anyone who has minimal stuff to carry.

Zelda Eject Backpack ($54.99)
My favorite part of this Zelda-themed backpack is not that it’s Zelda, but that the lunch box is on the outside and comes off. If you want to carry just the lunch box, unzip the edges and attach the shoulder strap. Otherwise, you have a cooler and a backpack in one.

Pelican Elite \ Image courtesy of Pelican
Pelican Elite \ Image courtesy of Pelican

Pelican Elite Luggage ($505)
For the students with expensive stuff in their luggage or who plan on taking it white water rafting, check out the Pelican Elite Luggage. I use mine for carrying my costumes to and from events so I don’t arrive with a broken Bat cowl.

Build On Brick Bookends ($19.99)
Build your own bookends with ThinkGeek’s Lego bookends. Lego bricks not included.

Zoku Ice Cream Maker ($25.49) and Zoku Slush & Shake Maker ($17.95)
The Zoku Ice Cream Maker and the Zoku Slush and Shake Maker are a must-have for the dorm room refrigerator. My family loves pouring soda into the slush maker and getting a frosty treat within minutes. And with Pinterest having truckloads of ice cream recipes, it’s hard to pick which one to make first.

AutoSeal Kangaroo Water Bottle with Pocket ($12.18) and Gizmo Sip Kids Water Bottles ($9.81)
Keep your student hydrated with the Kangaroo Water Bottle or the Gizmo. Both have a great seal on them and won’t spill when tossed in your backpack. (I toss mine in with my iPad all the time.) The Kangaroo comes in a variety of colors and holds 24 ounces. The Gizmo model comes in four different colors and holds 14 ounces of your child’s favorite drink. Both are dishwasher-safe. My suggestion is to keep only water in them if your only option is hand-washing.

Slim Sack \ Image courtesy of
Slim Sack \ Image courtesy of

Slim Snack
($13.95 for a four-pack)

Talk about your eco-friendly, multi-purpose product. Slim Snack is it. These leak-proof silicone tubes are perfect for packing fruit, granola, applesauce, veggies, or whatever. When school’s out for the summer, use them to make your own ice pops out of blended fruit or juices. Each one is easy to fill, even for kids, especially if you stand one up in drinking glass.


Toothless Tail Fin Fighter Skirt \ Image courtesy of WeLoveFine
Toothless Tail Fin Fighter Skirt \ Image courtesy of WeLoveFine

WeLoveFine Toothless Tail Fin Skater Skirt ($25)
Get your dragon training on with this skirt inspired by Toothless the dragon.

Avengers Assemble Charm Bead Set – ThinkGeek Exclusive ($119.95)
Assemble the charms!

Rocket Raccon \ Image courtesy of
Rocket Raccon \ Image courtesy of

Rocket Raccoon Hooded Women’s Tank Top w/ Tail ($44.99)
This is one of my favorite pieces from because I get so many compliments on it. I love the fluffy ears and the removable tail.

Superhero Belts from ($17.99)
Keep those pants where they should be with superhero style.

Batgirl Rhinestone Watch ($34.99)
Every superhero needs a watch and this one is sparkly and awesome.

Tote and Scarf \ Image courtesy of Uncommon Goods
Tote and Scarf \ Image courtesy of Uncommon Goods

Library Card Tote Bag and Literary Scarf ($20 for the Tote and $48 for the Scarf)
Uncommon Goods, which specializes in high-quality items from independent makers, offers this pair of stylish accessories for teachers, librarians, or book lovers. The natural cotton tote is printed to look like a vintage library card, instantly noticeable by anyone who has every checked out a book from a library. The silk-screen cotton infinity scarf contains passages from a choice of three timeless classics: Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights. Both products are sold on their own, with the tote made in Brooklyn and the scarf by  Tori Tissell out of Portland, Oregon.

When it comes to back to school, you can never have enough gadgets. What items are in your students’ arsenal for the new school year? Let us know in the comments!

Disclaimer: GeekMom may have received samples of some of these items. 

Homeschooling the Geeks into the Future of Education

LOTR Chess, photo courtesy of S. Cook

Last week, Wired published an article addressing the increasing rate of homeschooling in the tech community. Among others, our family was featured as an example of the growing dissatisfaction with the public school system and the desire to cultivate an education that focused on individuality and child centered learning. This was not the first article, nor will it be the last, that seeks to understand why parents would forego the traditional education model for what is typically seen as the unknown.

The inherent issue is that all of these articles can hardly begin to touch the scope of why homeschooling is increasing, and not just in the tech or geek culture. But since I am a geek and our family is a part of the tech culture, that is the point of view I can speak from.

The common definition of a geek is: Someone who is or becomes extremely excited or enthusiastic about a subject, typically one of specialist or minority interest. I happen to be enthusiastic about many things, but especially about education. The reality is that removing one’s family from the public education system is not the unknown. It is not new. It is how children have learned through most of human history. Systemized public education is the experiment. The diversity of why families homeschool, the economics of how they make it work, and how that manifests in each home is so profound in it’s individuality, it is often very hard to understand outside the experience.

Case in point:

The morning the reporter spent with us was a Thursday. Beyond the description he gave, our morning actually started much earlier. After breakfast, my boys went outside to measure our yard because we are historically renovating a house and they feel a medieval knot garden is appropriate to the architecture. We also had a discussion on why goat glue is used to fix plaster.

Then, they came in and began mapping out the next 6 weeks of what they wanted to study. It is essential to me that my children remain the captains of their educational ships, and as such they play a central role in deciding what that looks like. I serve as a guide, a mentor, an expert when they need one (or find them someone who is), constant and reliable, adding new things and old into their path to help expand their worldview. My boys happen to like structure and routine, and created their schedule for 4 days a week of study. They love math and history, which are always included, and one of them will continue Japanese language and culture while the other chose to move on from Mod Design to App Development.

They had also decided to continue studying entrepreneurship by building their own businesses and wanted my help getting started after finishing their goals for math that day and watching CNN student news. One of my boys decided on a restaurant, the other on genetically modified creatures. The first eventually came up with a budget and created a set menu, which later he invited several families to attend an opening. The other started researching private and public funds that would support his research, as well as other organizations he could partner with in order to conserve resources.

We also covered history that day. We have just reached the Age of Enlightenment and I suggested it would be fun to try to create a modern marketing or social media scheme for some of the big ideas coming out of this time period. They both loved the idea, disappeared for a while, and came back. One had used Gimp to hack a Gravity (movie) poster, replacing the floating astronaut with Sir Isaac Newton, adding floating apples, and changing the text at the bottom to include information essential to the understanding of gravity. The other kid used iMovie to create a call-to-action film called “Free Galileo,” describing Galileo’s findings, his imprisonment by the church, and the need to protest against the injustice. I decided to create a few Gosling “Hey Girl” memes.

After we all stopped laughing, the boys went upstairs to participate in an online Skype gaming tournament with their friends and I went to pick up their sister. (My youngest wanted to try school this year, and attends an amazing constructivist school, for as long as she wants to go.) When I got home, I worked for a couple hours and then got ready to take the boys to Judo, where they are on a tournament team. During Judo, my daughter and I worked on a collaborative drawing. At night, we watched an episode of Firefly and then read until we all eventually went to bed.

I also solicited descriptions from other homeschooling GeekMoms (some of us do, some of us don’t) about their day:

On that same Thursday, GeekMom Jenny’s family got up to be ready to work on schoolwork by 9am at the latest. They focus on math first thing, because it takes a fresh mind. Next she had each of her two kids working on their other subjects, some independently, some with her as a guide, some with her as teacher. Things like writing, health (for her daughter), logic, history, Spanish, and art often end up on Thursdays. Mid afternoon, she took her son to his social skills class at a local middle school (even though he’s in 5th). Soon thereafter, she took her son to one of his book clubs at the library, rushed over to the YMCA for her daughter’s gymnastics class, rushed back to pick up her son, and then back to pick up her daughter. Family time in the evening included dinner together, games, family discussion time, and other things, including work.

At GeekMom Rebecca’s house, that Thursday was spent with her sixteen year old son, since her daughter is now 19 and in college. She drove her son to a homeschooling group where he takes Spanish, and Art in the morning. While he was there she gave music lessons to a family nearby. Then she picked him up and went home to watch a Star Trek: Voyager episode over lunch. After that they did a chapter in his physics book together. (She gave him an assignment to write up the difference between a regular oven and a convection oven, and he started it off with a comic about the convection oven being powered by the energy of “fan girls” screaming.)

For the rest of the afternoon she had music students, so he did random stuff on his own: math, philosophy, literature, exercise, his eBay pewter business. He has a written schedule that they work out together and tweak every month. Then, she took him to Aikido; his dad picked him up after work and they all ate dinner together. In the evening, he played video games with friends online, then his dad and he went over some of his math. Finally, he read the latest Harry Dresden novel until bedtime. Rebecca notes that Thursday is probably their busiest day. If I had asked her about Wednesday it would have been: went to a museum, went out for lunch discussing the museum exhibits, came home and did maybe an hour of work, played video games, in the evening he went to play Magic at a local gaming store. Every day is different!

That same Thursday for GeekMom Cristen started at 8:00 am. The kids played and had breakfast. Formal lessons on this day were light, because they had a friend arriving for the day at 10:30 am. So, her eight year old son did two Word Ladders, worked on his story about two dragons fighting over the same castle, then did some math with Beast Academy. Her kindergartner read a BOB Book out loud, and did some sculpting with clay while she helped her son.

Once their friend arrived, the kids played while Cristen packed some water and snacks. They then headed to the local roller rink for a mid morning session. In the car they listened to Joy Hakim’s The History of US. After skating the kids were  hungry, so they went and had a quick lunch. When they got home, a friend and her four-year-old daughter stopped by. Her two older girls were at co-op classes up the road, and the little one wanted to play. Eventually, her friend went to pick up her older two girls, while her youngest stayed and played. When she came back, all the kids played for a few hours. Folks left there at about 5pm, then Cristen put a movie on for the kids and made dinner. She notes that her typical Thursday isn’t quite as active, but this is truly how it all went down.

Finally, for GeekMom Melanie, the day started around 7am. Her son is 12, and for the past year or so he’s been getting started without her. He doesn’t think of what he is doing as school, though. He gets up, goes downstairs, and gets a cup of dry cereal. Then he reads while he eats it. That day, it was a book about dinosaurs, since that is one of his latest passions. He also has the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual next to him, and seems to be referring to it once in a while. At around 8am, he went upstairs to get his computer. He writes programs in both Scratch and Python, usually for making some sort of games, but lately he’s been approaching things more methodically. He has Help Your Kid With Computer Programming and a DK workbook about coding next to him.

After some breakfast and morning routine, it was time to do math. Her son wanted to go back and review some of the basics, so they have been working on various topics. She figured she would let him do easy stuff until he got bored and wanted a new challenge, and that Thursday seemed to be the day. He tells her that doing the problems is hard. When she suggested perhaps it was more that he was bored and found the work tedious, he agreed. The next day they will work on something a bit more advanced.

After math, they talk a bit about explorers, and read part of a book together about Christopher Columbus. After lunch, Melanie’s son announces it’s time for him to “work.” This is part of his daily routine. This particular day, work consists of working on a Snap Circuits project. He’s making something with a siren and flashing lights. Every now and then he’ll need help, so he will ask her a question, and she leads him on the path to the answer. She thinks he got a little frustrated with it though, because he asked if he can leave it set up on the table. Then he went back to his dinosaur book. He started asking a lot of questions about what Cretaceous Earth looked like, so they spent some time researching. She finds out he is writing a story about kobalds and dinosaurs, and he was trying to make his setting geologically sound.

He got hungry around 3pm, and had a snack while he read from Hiro’s Journal, a book about the character from Big Hero 6. He’s been very inspired by that movie and that character lately, and says he wants to go to Nerd School. They discussed what this means, and how he can get there for a while. Then… it was dinner time and time to wind down for bed! Before bed they always read aloud from a novel. They were towards the end of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Lights were out around 8pm.

Squishy Circuits, photo courtesy of Curiosity Hacked

As you can see, just taking one day out of one year for a homeschooling family shows the uniqueness of the experience. Families tend to do what works best for their families, ebbing and flowing through passions, some more structured and some more fluid. Common misconceptions aside, there is no disconnect from the real world and community.

“Most revolutions begin in the margins. We can see this in many famous people for whom school never worked. Everybody from Einstein to George Lucas to Jack Horner, the paleontologist, are people for whom school was too narrow. They were marginalized. Students in the margins, as in any revolution, are pointing at the way towards the future.”
~David Rose, Founder and Chief Education Officer, Harvard School of Education

Something I have found as an educator outside the public system, whether I am in a museum or a non-profit or a hackerspace, is that people dedicated to public education often react to alternatives like homeschooling by becoming defensive. This is unnecessary and impedes progress. Alternative education is not symbolic nor is it competitive, it is participating in a movement that has to start somewhere, often in the margins. There is a palpable desire to integrate how we see children learning best into the public system. We can, in fact, change public education to be learner centered, creative, and innovative. But none of us is under an ethical or civic obligation to participate in a system we believe to be broken and all of us have the right to revolutionize education from a place free of standardization and test scores. It is without these restraints that we will be able to see how to rebuild public education.

Homeschooling is one choice, out of many, that is trying to use the knowledge we have had for decades to create learning environments that are based on child development, autonomy, and relationships. From the homeschooling movement, co-ops, clubs and programs have blossomed. Even my own work creating hackerspaces and programs for kids and their families has been heavily influenced by our experience as a homeschooling family—every child I work with is treated and respected as unique and every program we run holds the same vision. I work with public and private schools to integrate these ideas wherever we can, whether as an elective or a special event. Even if their time with me is the only time during the week that a kid isn’t told what to do, but in fact controls their own learning, it was worth it. I see parents every weekend who want to support their kids in this way and I try to help them figure out how. I am sure many educators feel they are trying to treat every child as individuals, but the reality of the system tells a story of limitation and frustration regardless of how hard teachers are working or how creative they get within the confines and expectations of performance. Some are more successful, many are not. It’s no wonder the alternative education movement is growing. I can see the shift happening.

Some believe that the tech community, especially here in Silicon Valley, should be able to produce a better public education system. Shouldn’t an industry that can make my phone learn how to identify all the gluten free restaurants near me without me even asking or a computer program that intuitively adjusts to my preferences be able to guide us to the future of individualized education? Perhaps, but only if they are willing to let go of concepts like scalability. Homeschooling was never meant to be scalable, please stop writing about how it’s not. What it does show us is a range of outcomes from average to outstanding, and rejecting this wealth of information is counter-productive. It is revealing evidence that the latest classroom trends are just that- trends- because they do not sustainably support how children learn. Perhaps then, with the values of innovation inspiring us, it is the education community (particularly alternative education), the people who study and work with children, and not the tech community should be the ones we look to, the ones we support and give credit to. Scalability is for network systems, not kids.

What we really are asking for is a reproducible and flexible public system that can be modified to meet the needs of its community while sharing values, information, and resources. The world is absolutely changing and, especially in the tech industry, work is becoming more creative, mindful, resourceful, self-directed, open source, and collaborative. Curious, passionate, life-long learners are made through these same values. If we invest in this, we will see the results we are looking for. Every child has a right to and deserves to learn in this way, but until we change our mindset about assessment and replace the old system, we will continue to see what is missing from our children’s education.

Plein Air Painting at the beach, photo courtesy of S. Cook

CES: The Future So Far

Photo of slim e-Ink watch by Marziah Karch

CES is one of my favorite conferences to attend, because it offers a small glimpse into the future. Sometimes it’s an alternate future where crazy and impractical products are funded and introduced, but it’s a great way to see trends. A lot of companies pre-announce products that they plan to introduce later in the year, so you can’t always count on the product actually hitting the shelves.

This year, sensors are all over the place. Parrot is introducing a sensor that will tell you when your plants need to be watered. It also comes with an app to tell you about plant care, so even people who thought they were brown thumbs would have a chance at gardening. An entire section of the trade show floor is dedicated to step sensors, heart monitors, and other self-care sensors that work with your smart phone. There’s even a fork that senses how fast you eat and gives you feedback to encourage slower meals. Several companies introduced sensors that can be used to track lost children or adults. One company cleverly had the sensor inside a phone-watch that could be called by up to five different pre-approved numbers.

Not only did Lego introduce an update to the Mindstorms, they’ve got competition in the cool brick space.

Your next phone is probably going to be a phablet, and it’s probably going to be waterproof. It’s going to connect wirelessly with everything using NFC assist to make Bluetooth pairing faster, and it’s going to charge inductively. Companies would really like you to upgrade your TV into an ultra-high resolution screen. Sony is even willing to re-digitize portions of their media holdings to get you to do it. Sony didn’t mention a word about 3D TV, by the way. Hisense introduced a glasses-free 3D TV. (The results were better than one of those Cracker Jack prizes that you tilt to see it move, but still not as good as The Hobbit in high frame rate.)

There are also battling robots in the future, and your car will always know where you’ve parked (and probably will rat you out to your insurance company if you speed). Your camera will run Android, even if it is not your phone. No hover boards so far, but there are a few days of trade show left.