How Four Kids LEGO of Self-Doubt and (MIND)STORMed the Castle

You know how I don’t like to spend Saturday? Watching kids play with Lego bricks. Especially if I’m not allowed to play with them myself. So how I found myself driving three sixth grade Montessori boys (one of them my own spawn) and offering to spend the entire day in an auditorium watching nineteen teams of four build Lego robots, then watch them try to push three other Lego robots out of a taped circle again and again, is beyond me.

Continue reading How Four Kids LEGO of Self-Doubt and (MIND)STORMed the Castle

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

A Look at Computer Science For All

For my generation, reading, writing and arithmetic provided a base skill set. It opened the way for any number of careers. For my daughter, it will not be enough.

She still needs these skills. However, they will not grant her admission as they did me. She needs more. She needs a computer science understanding to control the technology and devices around her.

It is a reality President Obama recognizes. He wants to facilitate the changes needed to address this new world.

It is a simple enough of a concept, educate our children for the realities of tomorrow, and we will build a strong tomorrow. Because of this, I commend President Obama for his Computer Science for All initiative. My question remains, will it provide the base he hopes it well? Or is it too one size fits all?

Continue reading A Look at Computer Science For All

If You Can Dance, You Can Code

Can you shimmy? Can you shake?
Can you step-clap-twirl to the right then the left?
Can you do the Hokey Pokey and turn yourself around?
Because that’s what it’s all about.

Coding, that is. Behind the intimidating circuitry hidden inside the impersonal hardshell exterior known as computers is an elegant simplicity that can unlock countless possibilities limited only by your imagination. The beauty of it is that it is so fundamentally easy to understand, yet capable of doing so, so much. Much like dancing.
Continue reading If You Can Dance, You Can Code

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

Lessons From a First-Time Mini Maker Faire Exhibitor

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

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

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

A Girl and The “Apple Demon” – My First MacBook Pro

The Apple Demon. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
The Apple Demon. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

This is a story about a girl name Dakster and her adventure into Apple Land.

Dakster loved Windows computers more than anything. They’re shiny. They’re easy to use. And if they break, her degree in Computer Engineering and day job as a Network Administrator gave her the skills to either fix it or turn it into a toaster.

She can take a computer apart, put it back together, and get it working again quicker than most people can take apart a pen and put it back in working condition. She’s tamed servers, copiers, laptops, and desktop PCs with her mad computer skills that she’s obtained over her 15 years of working with Windows computers. Continue reading A Girl and The “Apple Demon” – My First MacBook Pro

The Technology Is There, So Why Aren’t You in a Zero Emissions Car?

AGV Cover
Image: NEMPA

Automotive technology has come a very long way over the last few years. Fuel efficiency is better and seeing hybrid and electric cars is no longer out of the ordinary, but there’s one problem. No one is buying into the whole zero emissions thing right now even with a growing number of options that are significantly better for the environment.

This was the topic of conversation at the NEMPA/MIT Technology Conference held this year at the MIT Technology Center. It’s an annual event organized by the New England Motor Press Association along with MIT to focus on technology issues in the automotive industry. The topic this year was the challenge of getting people to buy into zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs).

You might remember a few years back when gas prices were frighteningly high and everyone was clamoring to get into a more fuel efficient car. There weren’t even a heck of a lot of hybrid options out there at the time so people were on waiting lists for cars like the Prius. Then gas prices came down and our priorities changed.

The expert panels of speakers included representatives from General Motors, Toyota, MIT, and the International Council on Clean Transportation. They represented different groups all trying to convince consumers to go green and get into a zero emissions car.

Image: NEMPA
Image: NEMPA

If you look just at the cost of gas, that might not convince you to get into a ZEV, but if you look at the environmental impact, then it’s a no-brainer. Bob Perciasepe of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions gave a great example of the impact of ZEVs.

A hybrid produces roughly three tons of carbon dioxide annually which is a lot less than a beast like a Hummer at ten tons. Your traditional gas car probably falls in the middle somewhere, so you can feel good if you’re driving a hybrid. If you want to feel really good, then look at a ZEV. They come in at 60% more climate-friendly than even a hybrid. That’s a significant difference.

Pure electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are out there and they’re much more environmentally friendly than even the best hybrid on the road. The problem is, people are loathe to embrace this new technology and want to stick with what they know.

Image: NEMPA
Image: NEMPA

There are concerns about electric vehicles and their range, but the network of public charging stations continues to grow as does the speed at which they can fully charge a vehicle’s battery. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are lagging behind on refueling options making them an even tougher sell. The infrastructure doesn’t exist in a way that makes most people comfortable.

It’s like that old line from Field of Dreams. If they build it, they will come. The next time you’re in the market for a new car, take a second look at ZEVs and consider not just the dollars in your pocket, but the pollution in the air and how much you can help by going zero emissions.

Go Green With The All-New 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid

2016 Sonata Hybrid (2)
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. Image: Hyundai.

Gas prices have left the stratospheric heights they reached a few years ago, which means people aren’t thinking about hybrids these days. The pain at the pump isn’t so bad and hybrids get a bum wrap for being blah, ho-hum cars that no one wants to drive. The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid has been completely redone this year, giving you plenty of reasons to go green.

There are two models to choose from, so you can go traditional hybrid or opt for the new plug-in model. Both are surprisingly not hybrid-ish behind the wheel. You’re not driving a sports car, but you also won’t feel like you’re driving a glorified scooter. There’s even a chance for you to play with your drive experience by selecting one of three drive modes.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

Eco is the most economical choice and it’s also the least exciting. I wouldn’t drive in Eco unless I found myself in the middle of nowhere, desperately trying to eke out the best fuel economy possible.

There’s a huge difference when you switch to Normal and the Sonata Hybrid suddenly becomes a car you want to drive. Press on the gas and the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine proves that it is alive after all, with 193 net horsepower in the hybrid and 202 net horsepower in the plug-in. It’s all paired to a very smooth 6-speed automatic transmission.

Turn things up one more level to Sport and the steering and throttle response increase slightly. Again, not a sports car, but you’ll completely forget you’re in a hybrid, especially if you can find a nice winding road with tight corners. Opt for the plug-in and you unfortunately lose Sport mode, but stick with Normal and you’ll still be happy.

There’s a nifty energy indicator in the instrument cluster that lets you see how your driving style and choice of modes are affecting your fuel economy. It gamifies the driving experience by breaking things out to show how often you’re driving efficiently and how often you’re driving like Mario Andretti. It’s likely to make you ease up on the gas, if the numbers aren’t going in the right direction.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

The plug-in will run in three different modes and you can choose which one. There’s electric, hybrid, and battery charge. It can run purely on electric for 24 miles, more than any other vehicle in its class. That does mean it has a larger charge time of about 3 hours on a 110 volt and nine hours on 240 volt. It also has a class-leading range of 605 miles.

On the outside, there are some changes from the gas version of the Hyundai Sonata. There’s a larger grille, modified front and rear bumpers, and new wheel designs. It’s like a stealth hybrid that doesn’t want to brag about being green.

Hyundai has also pushed a lot of the battery components beneath the floor mat in the trunk to make for a nice flat load surface. It has 13.3 cubic feet of cargo space, so there’s plenty of room for groceries or a family’s luggage. They did eliminate a spare tire to free up some of that space, but there is a tire-mending kit instead.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

While we’re talking about all that space provided by the lack of spare and relocated battery, let’s talk about the warranty. The car has a 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 10-year/100,000-powertrain warranty, but the best part is the lifetime hybrid battery warranty. They’re the only ones with a lifetime warranty on their hybrid battery, giving them a huge advantage over the other guys.

The interior is spacious and, as is typical of today’s Hyundai, absolutely beautiful. They aren’t the cars they were a few years ago and this is a very good thing. The Sonata Hybrid has plenty of room for a family of four and if you need to put someone in the middle in the back, they won’t hate you for giving them that seat.

There are two big reasons people buy hybrids. The first is environmental responsibility and the second is fuel economy. Hyundai has the first one covered not just by producing a hybrid, but by being environmentally responsible at a corporate level.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. Image: Hyundai.

Their recently remodeled headquarters uses recycled concrete from the old building to reduce waste and varying types of glass on the windows to make climate control more efficient. They even boxed up 73 pine trees and kept them safe during construction before replanting them at the new finished building.

They’ve got the second one covered with the numbers you’d expect from a hybrid. The estimated highway fuel economy on the Sonata Hybrid is 44 mpg, while the plug-in electric gets 93 mpge. You will happily be driving past the pump far more often than you have to stop.

The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid offer two great choices for those looking to go green with their next car purchase. A beautiful and comfortable interior, sporty styling, great fuel economy, and that lifetime hybrid battery warranty make this car a winner.

Hyundai covered my expenses to attend this drive event.

Screen-Free Week: 5 Reasons to Say No

Photo courtesy of S. Cook.

Every year, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood hosts a Screen-Free Week, and every year I roll my eyes. This year, it’s May 4-10. This is not the first time a GeekMom has spoken up about this “event,” and I suspect it will not be the last.

The website says that “children and families will rediscover the joys of life beyond the screen. Unplug from digital entertainment and spend your free time playing, reading, daydreaming, creating, exploring, and connecting with family and  friends.” The idea that these values and using media are mutually exclusive, as well as the clear judgement about what is more valuable, is misguided and counter-productive. Here are five reasons to say no:

1. It’s easier to make a habit than break one, and even then it takes longer than a week.

Most of the emphasis of Screen-Free Week is on breaking what parents perceive as bad screen habits. But science has shown that it takes an average of 66 days to integrate a new behavior. If parents really want to build better media habits, they would be better off looking at it as a process rather than an event. In addition, looking at forming a new habit around screen time in a positive way such as making room for and participating in other activities, rather than a rejection of using technology as valuable way to spend time, is more likely to create long-term balance.

2. Screen-Free Week projects a value judgement that can be polarizing.

I don’t know who came up with the idea that by giving up screens for a week kids will rediscover the joys of “playing, reading, daydreaming, creating, exploring, and connecting with family and friends,” but clearly it is someone who is either technologically illiterate or in the business of fear. Our house has plenty of screens and my children do all of these things, sometimes with the use of screens and sometimes without. In any given week, they have played with Legos, read a comic book, created a new piece of art, explored a new hiking trail near our house, and connected with their friends at the park. They have also used screen time playing video games, read reviews and articles on their favorite sites, created an entire city in Minecraft, explored the latest research on finding sunken ships in the ocean, and connected with their auntie living in Shanghai on Skype. All of these things have value and all of these interests feed each other. When you reject what they love, they may see it as a rejection of them, and then it becomes a battleground. Spending a week focused on breaking what you may see as limiting but your kids see as limitless may shut down the conversation before it even starts.

 3. Screen time should be part of a holistic lifestyle.

Technology is integrated into almost every facet of life. Approaching it as a tool, creating the understanding that we control technology instead of the other way around, and fostering a healthy relationship with screens is a far better use of our time than demonizing screen time. The earlier children can learn to create their own balance around technology, the more we parent them into a consistent and long-term view of a holistic lifestyle that embraces technology. We should be setting up a dynamic between screen time and kids that models self-regulation, healthy nutrition, exercise and sleep practice, and personal knowledge. Ripping the screens away for one week will do nothing towards this goal, nor will kids even consider the lesson attempted by adults who can’t even model and maintain a holistic lifestyle themselves.

4. For some kids, screen time is essential.

My friend has a son who is gifted and delightful and has a learning style that relies on screen time. In her own words:

“We have learned that my son’s very high IQ was hiding severe sensory processing issues. In uncovering those, his OT has helped us to see that tech in general and the computer specifically is his one ‘safe place.’ As she said, the world is unpredictable and feels like a sensory assault on him every day, all day. Being in public is hard. Being one of three noisy kids in a tiny house is hard. When he has stretched himself in that way, he needs to unwind, to decompress, and to be able to feel like there is a place where he understands the rules and can trust that they won’t be broken or bent (except by him, of course). His number one self-soothing method is creating mods in Minecraft. He is literally making a world of his own design. When he has ample self-directed time, he is ready for the challenge of engaging with the world. In the middle or end of it, he would ‘pop out’ and was so incredibly engaged, enthusiastic, kind, warm, thoughtful, and deeply connected. Pretty much the opposite of how he was ‘supposed’ to be. Screens don’t automatically create disconnection, but a disconnected kid would way rather engage with a screen than continue to feel disconnected from their parent.

He has also come to love and appreciate the natural world through technology. He actually told me as a toddler that he did not like animals or nature (guess what my priorities were/what I pushed?). He refused to go to the zoo or on hikes. For two parents who met working at REI, this was painful. But TV shows and video games brought him a new understanding and appreciation of the world, and he is now passionate about marine biology and animal rescue, and is the first one in the car to ask us all to stop and look at the beautiful scenery around us.

Technology, specifically screen media, is an absolutely vital resource for my son, who needs to learn and create and hack all day, every day. My single biggest regret as a parent is not looking deeper into my own fears sooner and opening my heart to my son’s innate passion and gift.”

Can you imagine what a Screen-Free Week would do to a child like this, especially one imposed by parents who have the power to overrule or parents who have not made this connection yet?

GeekMom Jackie uses a variety of apps for her daughter’s speech therapy. GeekMom Sophie uses games right now to support her son’s desire for better spelling. My son is watching a lot of anime right now to support learning Japanese, which is doing more for him than any language program. Does this screen time also get banned or not because they are considered “worthy” or “educational?” The judgement on what is “good” screen time and “bad” screen time is arbitrary and senseless. Which brings me to…

5. We need to stop using screens as a value judgement on others.

You know, kids are people, too. Whole little beings with values and interests of their own. We now live in a period dominated by technology and that is not going to go away. Neither are the tech passions and interests of our kids. The thing about kids is, they are more likely to do what we do, not what we say. Instead of imposing our judgements on what would be a valuable use of our children’s time, we should be modeling what we would like to see. We should be listening to them about what they love instead of shaming them into giving it up for a week. Instead of banning screen time, we should be helping them to recognize how their minds, bodies, and hearts feel during all their activities, including when they are using media. Think about something you are very passionate about and then imagine someone you love implying there is something wrong with you that needs to be fixed based on that passion. That is how kids hear it.

Is programming a robot with an iPad more valuable than playing a video game? Many would say it is, except I could give you a different take. One of my sons loves Assassin’s Creed. Intrigued, I started playing it with him and saw him using superb logic and strategy to navigate the game. The different versions sparked an interest in history, which we began to explore online and through documentaries and museum visits. He also started to be interested in cosplay, learning to sew and make weaponry based on the characters. Finally, before this awesome video even came out, he initiated learning parkour. All of that from one game. Is a plumber more or less valuable than someone who designs websites? Both work, certainly, but we don’t judge the value of one person who works with their hands over the other who works with a computer. So why do we insist on judging play so harshly? Play is the work of the child, to quote Maria Montessori.

I don’t have to share every interest that my kids have, but if I have any expectation of them respecting my passions and those of others, I have to give them the same. This notion of “better” needs to go and be replaced with a healthy understanding of what is good for the person and the family. More or less screen time may be the answer, but that decision should be made out of knowledge, insight, and respect, not fear and pressure.

I suggest that instead of a Screen-Free Week, we hold a Screen-In Week. Let the kids choose all the media for the week and let the parents participate in whatever they choose. Talk about their choices, learn why they are passionate, connect those values to other activities to create balance, and model it yourself. And when the week is over, keep doing it because that is how we stay connected and one week is not enough. Not even close to enough.

New Chevrolet Teen Driver System Keeps Kids Safe

Image: Chevrolet
Image: Chevrolet

Those first 16 years go by in the blink of an eye and suddenly you’re handing over your car keys to your teenager. You do everything you can to keep make sure they’ll be safe, make sure they know what to do, but how do you know if they’re really behaving behind the wheel? New Teen Driver technology from Chevrolet can help.

This snazzy new tech will make its debut in the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu and will help parents monitor their teen’s driving habits so that they can make sure they’re being safe. It starts with muting the car’s audio if the front seat belts aren’t buckled as a little reminder to buckle up.

The volume can also be preset, based on the key fob, so that music can’t be blasting at a ridiculous volume that would cause distraction for your new driver. Additionally, if the vehicle is equipped with active safety features like forward collision alert, stability control, traction control, and rear cross traffic alert, then these features will be automatically turned on and won’t be able to be turned off.

The Teen Driver system can also keep track of how your teen is driving by providing information on how far and how fast your kid is going on the road. Forward collision alerts, forward collision braking events, and antilock brake events can also be monitored to provide parents the opportunity to discuss driving patterns with their teens.

The system is not subscription based and is available as an option on lower trims while being a standard feature on the Premier trim of the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu. Now you’ve got one more tool for keeping your new teen driver safe on the roads.

2015 Toyota Camry: The Family Sedan Gets an Upgrade

2015 Toyota Camry
Image: Toyota

The Toyota Camry is kind of a big deal. It’s been the best-selling car in America for the last 12 years in a row, so when Toyota decided to change it up, they had to do so very carefully. You simply can’t afford to mess up the best-selling car in America and the good news is, they made it even better.

They didn’t just tweak it a little here and there, they completely overhauled it with every single body panel except for the roof getting a new look. Inside, they’ve changed most of the surfaces so that what you touch feels better. This is the Camry you know, but at the same time you’ve never met.

I had the opportunity to drive the 2015 Toyota Camry recently and I was looking forward to seeing what they changed and if it really made any difference. Every time an automaker comes out with a new version of an existing car they claim it’s different, but making it feel that way is a bit of a trick.

2015 Toyota Camry Front
Image: Toyota

Toyota totally pulled it off, making this mild-mannered sedan less mild and a lot sportier and more appealing. It’s offered in no less than nine different variants, so there’s likely one that will fit your budget and your needs.

It sounds a bit complicated, but basically what you’re looking at are changes in trim from the base LE, to the sporty SE, to the more luxurious XLE, and lastly the XSE which combines both sport and luxury features. They’ve also got a hybrid that comes in three different trim levels.

Your last choice is between two different engines with either a 2.5-liter 4 cylinder or a 3.5-liter V6. Most people opt for the smaller engine, but I’m telling you, if you enjoy driving and want a little more pep on the road, you should give the V6 a test drive. There is a big difference between the two so it’s worth checking out.

2015 Toyota Camry Badge
Image: Toyota

I drove not all, but quite a few different variants of the new Camry and got a really good feel for what they changed. The one with the most noticeable new look was the SE, the sporty one, and it has a downright aggressive grille with styling to match. No mild-mannered anything as this thing takes to the road.

The luxurious XLE will make you feel like you’ve taken a seat behind a much pricier car than its $26,150 starting price. Yes, you can get into all but the V6 variants for under $30K, and you get an impressive list of safety and convenience features.

2015 Toyota Camry Interior
Image: Toyota

Driving a sedan this size likely means you’ve got passengers along with you, often kids, and we all want our kids to be safe. Standard features include 10 airbags, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TRAC), Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist as well as Smart Stop Technology brake-override system. That’s all standard on every single Camry that rolls off the line.

You can opt for additional features like a Pre-Collision System, Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert with Auto High Beam, and Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert. Safety is a priority for Toyota and it shows in all these safety features.

2015 Toyota Camry Charger
Image: Toyota

Convenience features also abound with a 12v power port, USB port and a wireless charging system for select smartphones. There’s a special space where you just set your phone, a light comes on, and you’re charging. How cool is that?

The Camry looks good, feels good, is packed with safety, and is something of an escape from the world outside the car. Even the sounds of a torrential downpour during my drive were kept at bay. This is thanks to better door and window seals, noise insulating carpet, and exterior tweaks to make the air flow over the car with less turbulence.

If you’ve driven a Camry and think you know the car, think again. Toyota has taken the best parts, made them better, and given everyone a reason to take another look at the 2015 Toyota Camry.

Toyota covered all my expenses to attend this drive.

Enhance Your EV3 Robot Experience With The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book

Cover for The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner's Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press
Cover for The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press

I’m a rookie First Lego League (FLL) coach, so when I was offered the opportunity to review The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots by Laurens Valk, I was thrilled. I am very pleased to say that the book did not disappoint! Within 15 minutes of picking up the book, I had already learned 3 things I didn’t know. As I continued to read, I picked up many more concepts and tips to take back and share with my First Lego League team. Laurens Valk is very qualified to write about the EV3. He helps test new Mindstorms products, and one of his robot designs is featured on the EV3 packaging as a bonus project.

Johnny working on the EV3 EVR3STORM sample robot. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Johnny and friends working on the EV3 EVR3STORM sample robot. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I started working with the Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot after my son, Johnny, received it for Christmas last year. Johnny and I installed the EV3 Software and set about building three of the sample robots (TRACK3R, EV3RSTORM, and R3PTAR) from the instructions. Then, in May 2014, I began the journey of organizing and coaching a FLL team. Although there are a lot of resources online, knowing what I know now, I’d recommend that each of my team members purchase a copy of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book. The book has an impressive 396 pages filled with all the information about the EV3 that you could possibly want to know. There is both a “brief” and a “detailed” table of contents covering 19 chapters that are divided into six sections. Each section contains a multitude of full color diagrams providing concise and detailed pictorial information about the topics being discussed. The book walks you through what’s in the EV3 box and the basics of using the EV3 software, then the book proceeds to explain in detail the robot sensors and more complex programs. There are additional sample robots to build (e.g., EXPLOR3R, FORMULA EV3 RACE CAR, ANTY, SNATCH3R, and LAVA R3X) as well as scores of activities to test your new found knowledge. Whether you already have some experience with the EV3 like me or are totally new to the EV3, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book has an appropriate starting point for you.

The Brief Contents of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner's Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press
The Brief Contents of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press

For a full run down on the EV3, check out GeekMom Marziah’s review. Although this book states that it requires the Lego Mindstorms EV3 retail set 31313, the vast majority of the book will also work just as well with the Lego Mindstorms Education EV3 Core Set 45544.

Here’s a short list of some of the take-aways I had from this book.  It’s amazing how much you can learn even when you’ve been working with the robot for a while. I learned:

  1. How to go back and forth between the Lobby, my program, and the Content Editor in the EV3 Software. (page 29)
  2. You can double click on a program name tab to rename the program to something more meaningful. What a relief to finally be able to give our programs a name related to what the program does instead of just “program”, “program2”, etc. (page 30)
  3. How to use the hand tool to pan around large programs. It didn’t take long before our programs became so large that they wouldn’t fit on the visible computer screen. It’s very useful to be able to quickly move around and scan our entire program.  (page 31)
  4. How to create My Blocks. These are essentially what I’ve always called procedures. You can save a group of programming blocks that perform a specific task into one block that you can insert anywhere in your programs without having to recreate all the individual blocks. My Blocks can be shared among team members or groups too. (page 53)
  5. How to view ports and sensor values, and move motors, all right on the EV3 brick. I knew you could do a lot more on the brick itself, but I hadn’t run into any text describing the specifics before this book. (page 66)
  6. Switch blocks have tabbed views. If your switch block has a lot of cases, you can use the tabbed view to tidy up your view and analyze one case at a time. (page 72)
  7. About the unregulated motor block. From the book, “When you don’t want the EV3 to supply that extra power to maintain constant speed, you can use unregulated speed.” (page 101)

As I mentioned earlier, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book is full of color images and samples. Page 52 has an awesome example program showing a loop. I love how easy these examples are to replicate on my computer in the EV3 software and try out for myself. The examples are visually accurate and taken directly from the EV3 software, and the extra write-in comment boxes make the examples easy to understand and follow.

Page 52 of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner's Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press
Page 52 of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press

Besides having great example programs, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book also has fantastic exercises for you to try in the form of Discovery sections. My favorite was Discovery #32 in Chapter 7 “Using the Color Sensor” where the EV3 color sensor is used to follow a track that you can design for yourself. Check out this video of my robot in action trying to move around and stay inside a green rectangular track constructed from white poster paper and green electric tape. I would never have known to try this if it weren’t for The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book!

Whether you’re new to the EV3, a FLL coach, on a FLL team, or maybe your robot has been sitting for a while and you’re looking to breath new life into it, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book is for you! This book would also be great to include along with the EV3 as a gift this coming holiday season.

The LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots retails for $34.95 but currently sells on Amazon for $22.10 (hardback) or $9.78 (Kindle).

In addition to The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book, No Starch Press has a large selection of Lego books including The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book due out in November. I can’t wait to check it out!

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Giveaway: Win a Logitech iPad Keyboard Folio, Wireless Speaker, and Mouse

Image: Logitech

The kids are all back to school and Halloween is nearly upon us so it’s time to send out those care packages to all the college kids. Instead of sending them just tasty treats that will be gobbled up and gone before their next all nighter, Logitech is giving away a care package that they’ll use all year long.

It includes a little something of the practical and a little something that will let your college student have some fun. There’s a new mouse from their Color Collection, an Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad, and a Mobile Wireless speaker so they can turn up the tunes when it’s time to put away the books and have some fun.

  • Logitech’s 2014 Color Collection Mouse ($29.99) in eye-catching patterns and contemporary colors.
  • The Logitech Ultrathin ($99.99) that gives students an incredibly fast, fluid and comfortable typing experience for their iPad when on-the-go
  • The Logitech X300 Mobile Wireless ($69.99), a powerful wireless speaker that brings fun tunes to study hall.
Image: Logitech

The mouse is really cute and the speaker sounds fantastic, but by far, the one that I really love is the keyboard. It’s lightweight and makes using an iPad anywhere so much easier. Students can bring it to class, study groups, everywhere, and still get all their work done.

You can enter the giveaway over at my Total Fan Girl blog where a winner will be chosen at random after midnight on Monday, October 13th.

Good luck and Happy Fall!

I received these products for review purposes.

The Tech Behind The 2015 Ford F-150: And Now I Want a Truck

Image: Nicole Wakelin

I have never owned a truck because I couldn’t see why anyone would buy one unless they worked in construction or were a cowboy. Those guys, they need one, but me? No, I do not need a truck to haul my kids to school. However, after driving the all-new 2015 Ford F-150, I really, really want one.

Trucks are a big deal in the automotive world, and this one is pretty much the biggest deal of them all. It’s not just the best-selling truck in the United States; it’s the best selling vehicle. Period. The end. So when Ford redid the whole truck this year, people were excited and nervous.

When you’ve got a vehicle like the F-150 in your lineup. you simply can’t afford a fumble. Ford introduced their truck back in January at the Detroit Auto Show, but it wasn’t until now that they invited the press to drive it for the first time down in San Antonio, Texas. I was on this first-drive of the F-150 and it was an incredible experience.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

You may or may not know the horsepower on your car, but if you’re buying a truck, there are numbers you’re sure to be looking at before you plunk down your hard-earned cash. The two biggies are towing capacity and payload, and the F-150 has the other guys beat when it comes to full-size pickups.

It can tow 12,200 pounds and haul 3,300 pounds, and it does this with the help of some pretty amazing technological advancements. One of those advancements helps not just with its capability, but with its fuel economy and that’s due to the use of aluminum alloys instead of only steel.

This truck lost an incredible 700 pounds over the previous generation. That is a stunning number in an industry where every last ounce they can cut from a vehicle’s weight is cause for celebration. This means better fuel economy, braking, maneuverability, and handling, all of which become incredibly important when your truck is carrying a load or pulling a trailer.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

And, if you’re like most people, you’re thinking about those aluminum cans you can squish under the heel of your shoe and wondering if this is a good idea. Is it safe? Is it strong? Will it hold up under the pressures of daily use? The answer is yes.

They torture-tested this thing over more than 10 million miles, which covered all sorts of scenarios. They had it on their proving grounds, in labs, and even gave it to select customers who they new would, well, beat the heck out of it to see if they could make it fail. They couldn’t. The truck passed all of those tests with flying colors.

The F-150 now comes with four different engine choices, including a new 2.7-liter EcoBoost designed just for trucks. This engine is capable of producing 325 horsepower and 375 lb-ft of torque, which falls in the middle in terms of capability. Most people needing mid-range capability and about 90 percent of those who look for light-duty trucks will find this engine a good fit.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

It’s also equipped with start-stop technology that turns off the engine when the vehicle stops, saving you money at the pump. This is one of those features that, in some vehicles, is simply awful. The sound and vibration of the engine turning off and on can be downright jarring, but it was almost imperceptible in the F-150 trucks I drove. Really, the only reason I noticed it was off was the sudden silence, just like driving a hybrid.

There’s also an EcoBoost for those needing more from their truck. The 3.5-liter engine provides 365 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. This one is the monster. It’s also the one capable of the top range in towing and payload and has been tested in the real world with over 500,000 F-150s with this engine already on the road.

Inside, there is a mind-boggling array of trims that take the F-150 from basic truck that gets the job done all the way to something that looks and feels like a high-end sedan with leather trims and wood finishes. And it’s also packed with the latest infotainment and safety technology like a 360-degree camera, blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, and a lane-keeping system. No matter your needs, there’s a configuration of the F-150 that will be a perfect fit.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

And driving the F-150 is something you have to experience. It is a big truck, so if you haven’t piloted one down the road, then your first few minutes will be spent thinking, “Wow, this is big.” That feeling, amazingly, only lasts for a short time, because though this is a big, capable, powerful, truck, it’s also a very well-mannered one.

Handling is smooth and easy, making you forget just how much truck that steering wheel is moving along the road. The seats are also supportive and comfortable, so that even after a full day of driving, there’s no road-weariness or stiffness when you get out of the truck.

I had the chance to tow a 9,000-pound trailer—something I have never done before—and once my heart stopped trying to beat right out of my chest, it was easy. Despite being a lighter vehicle than before, the trailer never pushed the truck, even going downhill. I drove a competitor’s truck right after the F-150 and experienced the disconcerting sensation of the vehicle almost jerking forward when the trailer did push the truck. In the F-150, it simply didn’t happen and the drive was much easier.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

It was a unique experience driving the 2015 Ford F-150, with access to engineers and experts that could answer my every question and explain exactly what the truck was doing along the way to make driving easier. They’re running special test drives from October 11 through December 21 in 38 cities, so you can try out the new F-150, too. Pre-register for events or just show up and they’ll be happy to let you take a drive.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what the all-new 2015 Ford F-150 has to offer, whether you’re using it to haul heavy loads or just for hauling the kids to school.

All trip expenses were covered by Ford.

Keeping Geeky Contact In College

“Miss Us?!” was the caption for this photo postcard sent to my daughter in college. Her brother and I worked hard to get the perfect shot. (Image By Rebecca Angel)

ME: Did you find out if you made it into the jazz ensemble yet?
DAUGHTER: Not yet, but I had my first art studio class today and my teacher is really enthusiastic.
ME: That’s great! HUGS!

It has been almost a month since my daughter left for college, and we’ve been exploring the different ways of keeping in touch. Chatting with some other moms with first-year-college students, we all agreed that modern-day technology is great. Gone are the days where there was one phone for each dorm floor, with students waiting in line.

One mom said she had never texted before in her life, but solved her daughter’s laundry crisis with texts and photos. Another mom said her son set up Skype for her, and she wasn’t sure they’d ever use it, but he needed a heart to heart the other day, and she was so glad to see his face, even on a screen.

For my daughter and I, texting is the casual “I’m thinking about you” mode of communication. The above text is typical, and that’s it for the day. We don’t go back and forth, and I don’t text her more than once a day. If she wants to, I don’t mind!

One of my favorite apps is Postagram. You take a picture, add a note, and the app sends a real postcard with the photo via regular mail. (See the top photo. Heh-heh.) Once you have your addresses in, it takes so little time to send something fun.

There’s also the old-fashioned way of using snail-mail: I sent a fan art card of Korra to remind her to finish up season three. I also sent a box of snacks, and she gets a magazine subscription at home, so when that came in I mailed that out, too.

Email has been used for business things: she forwards us things the college needs, or alerts, or whatever, us forwarding her information about schedule stuff with the family.

My daughter has a Facebook page, but doesn’t post much. I’ve gotten a “like” or two on photos I’ve posted. And she did send a photo of one of her art projects to a few people via messaging. Facebook isn’t so popular now with the younger set?

Skype, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, these are things I don’t use and have no idea if she does. I’m sure there are a dozen more social media sites that could be part of keeping in touch with your kid away from home.

We’ve had three phone calls. The first one was right away, and she needed to talk about a college paperwork financial thing. The second was two weeks later. I asked if it was an okay time to talk and she said she was studying and would love to take a short break. We chatted about this and that, and I tried not to tell her exactly how much I missed her, but happily listened to all her adventures. The third was a “I need my mom” call after a particularly harsh day in figuring out college social life.

As the semesters go on, I’m sure we’ll get into a familiar rhythm of communication, but this is where we are now. Of course, there is the dilemma of how or even if to tell about emergencies. For example, I decided to send this text at the end of a crazy day:

ME: Everything is fine, but I wanted to let you know your aunt got her finger caught in the food processor. She’s very lucky. We spent the morning at the clinic, but she has her whole finger! Your cousins were freaked out, but everything is ok now.
DAUGHTER: Poor Aunt! Glad everything is ok. Hugs!

Ford Tackles Big Data And How It Can Improve Our Lives

Big Deal With Big Data, Ford Trends

Ford held its annual Trend Conference recently and discussed topics that went far and wide from their automobile roots with speakers expert in sustainability, data, design, and the growing prominence of women in the global marketplace. They shared their knowledge with us, and each other, encouraging the audience to ask questions and expand everyone’s points of view.

One session, What’s the Big Deal with Big Data, proved to be particularly fascinating, if not for the topic alone, but for the diverse speakers who tackled the same issue from very different angles. The panel included Don Butler of Ford Motor Company, Cynthia Czabala of InterContinental Hotels Group, Chuck Holland of UPS, Douglas Davis of Intel, Sarah Quinlan of MasterCard Advisors and Dan Wagner of Civis Analytics. It was quite a group.

Although the industry each represented was very different, the message was very much the same. Big data is a big deal and the challenge is to both manage all that information, utilizing just the pieces that will help them best serve their customers, and to do it in a way that doesn’t leave those customers feeling like their privacy has been compromised.

We are all, as individuals, so very aware of every bit of information we divulge, knowing that something as simple as a form filled in with your name and address is likely going to flow through myriad channels. It can be a very good thing, but it can also be a frightening thought that companies know so much about us.

Those companies are aware of the challenge, but throughout the session, there were common threads that might set your mind at ease. The goal of these companies, big and small, is not to spy on you and collect your data for nefarious purposes. The goal is to use data to make your experiences more personal and more satisfying.

Cynthia Czabala, Vice President, Data Services, InterContinental Hotels Group gave a great example of how small bits of data collected during a hotel stay can make future visits more rewarding for customers.

Say you’re a frequent traveler and when you dine with the hotel, you always order the same bottle of wine. The hotel knows what you order and can use that information in a very positive way. Rather than choosing to reward you with a gift card or something impersonal, they can instead choose to give you a bottle of your favorite wine as a thank you. Big data. Small details.

This is a personal piece of information, but it’s one that the hotel isn’t abusing, but using to make a customer’s life a little better. Don Butler, Executive Director, Connected Vehicles and Service at Ford spoke directly to our fears of companies gathering all our data and sharing it without our knowledge or permission.

Connected cars offer the opportunity to collect an incredible amount of information. Think about how much time you spend in your car and what your day-to-day travels, choices of radio stations, app usage, and even map destinations say about you. That’s a lot of data.

But, Butler said that your personal data is your personal data. Ford is interested in improving the driver experience, but knows that a car is a very personal space and that your date will always remain your data.

And that’s the crux of the issue. Big data is not going to get any smaller and the tools companies use to collect data will only grow more sophisticated in the future. That data can be a valuable tool for improving our lives and making our interactions with companies more personal, as long as the balance between what’s yours is yours, and what’s theirs is theirs, can be maintained.

Ford covered my expenses to attend this conference.

GeekMom Video Playlist

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 8.20.24 PM
Image by The Hillywood Show.

What do you get when you combine Dr. Who with The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s “Time Warp?” Check this brilliance out:

So you’ve landed on Mars, call the wife to announce the big news, and she’s bit distracted at the moment…

A Star Wars parody of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Well written, well sung, and well done, guys:

And a tiny volcano tries to explode. Cuteness.

LUKE’s PICKS! (Wherein I realize my son probably watches too many videos, but I can’t complain because he always finds ones that make me giggle.)

Kids React to Technology: Old Computers, where several kids ages 6 – 13, try to figure out a computer from the early 1980s. They can’t even figure out how to turn it on, heh-heh.

And after that, Cats React

The 2015 Chrysler 200 Packs Futuristic Tech To Keep Your Family Safe

2015 Chrysler 200
2015 Chrysler 200, Image: Chrysler

Every time a new car comes out there are new safety features and the 2015 Chrysler 200 is no exception to that rule. But, here’s the thing—what does all of that fancy tech actually do on a day-to-day basis to keep you and your family safe? In this case, it’ll actually take the wheel for a second and make sure you don’t drift off the side of the road and into a tree. The future, you’re soaking in it!

There are lots of safety features in every car and things like antilock brakes and airbags are the norm. We see them on the giant list of features, make a mental note, and move along. But some of the safety tech they’re putting in cars these days is getting downright futuristic like the Lane Departure Warning with Lane Keep Assist on the 2015 Chrysler 200.

I had the opportunity to drive the 200 at the vehicle’s recent launch in Louisville, Kentucky and tried out this feature firsthand and it was amazing. If you start to drift out of your lane, the car knows and it lets you know you’re in trouble by giving the wheel a little nudge and putting you back in your lane. Yup, for just an instant, the car drives itself down the road.

2015 Chrysler 200 Interior
2015 Chrysler 200, Image: Chrysler

There’s a little graphic on the instrument cluster that tells you when the feature is activated so you know it’s on duty and keeping track of what you’re doing. If you turn your signals on, then it has no problem with you going left or right and nothing happens. But, if you don’t signal, and start to drift it will move you back into your lane. You can actually watch the wheel move.

I tried this out and, dang, it was impressive! It knew to move the wheel just the tiniest bit to keep me from going off the road, but it didn’t take the wheel out of my hands. If I’d been doing some emergency maneuver, it wouldn’t have stopped me from steering the car wherever I wanted, but it would have helped if I was drifting. It’s a little scary to think of the car driving for you, but in this case, it was truly reassuring.

In that moment when your mind wanders, or you’re tired, or you’re simply not paying attention like you should be, this little feature could save your life.

You might be wondering how much a car that has something this futuristic costs, and the answer might surprise you. The 2015 Chrysler 200 is not a stripped down sedan but quite a luxurious car. It’s got plenty of standard and available features that can make it even more plush, but you can get behind the wheel of one for a price as low as $21,700. Even fully tricked out it’s $33,400. Not bad at all for a car that packs some impressively futuristic tech that could save your life.

Now, if they can just give it some snarky artificial intelligence like KITT and possibly David Hasselhoff as a co-driver, it’d be perfect.

Paralympics Drives New Technology

Photo: US Paralympics

This is a post about the Paralympics.  I know what you’re thinking…the Olympics and their partner, the Paralympics are over. Put on a shelf. Waiting another two years to come back and amaze us.

But for me, and millions of other amputees, the Paralympics, and their influence, will directly affect us in the years between the official games. The reason? In a word—new technology.

One of the greatest influences on recent prosthetic designs is the number of soldiers coming back from the Middle East with missing limbs. Walter Reed Medical Center, and its researchers, has stepped up to the plate, and is designing new prosthetics on a regular basis. There are products coming out of their labs that help not just veterans, but civilians like me.

But when it comes to being active, there is another catalyst for prosthetic reform. The Paralympics, and the desire to help a disabled person go as fast as they can, as safely as they can, is also technology that trickles down to me.

The winter Paralympics that took place last month was full of new designs and new ideas, even more so than the summer Paralympics. In many summer events, athletes can compete without their limbs. In almost every one of the winter events, their hardware is up front, critical to their results. From sit skis to hockey sleds, the better the equipment, the better the outcome.

A podium sweep for the United States in the debut event of snowboarding. Photo: Mike Shea

As the Paralympics finally begin to get more television coverage, major design companies are willing to work on ways to make disabled athletes more competitive. Dyson and Boeing are just two of the major companies to recently jump on board.

Able bodied athletes use new technology to train in new ways, and read their bodies in new ways. Swimmers try different suits that guarantee better results. Runners use new techniques on their training days that hope to produce better results on the day of the race.

My mini blade foot, being cleaned out by my prosthetist, after an adventure at the sand dunes. Photo: Judy Berna

Adaptive equipment is important on both the practice slopes and in the race itself. Without the new equipment, the race wouldn’t be possible. Then, lucky for me, that new technology shows up at my local prosthetist’s office and changes the way I navigate the world. The foot I wear today is a mini version of the blade worn by amputee runners, known as a Cheetah leg. I don’t run on it (although I could) but it propels every step of my active days.

I may never be a super athlete. But when the think tanks begin to come up with new ways to make my athlete friends win more medals, they’ve also come up with new ideas that change my everyday life. It’s just another reason why it’s important for the able bodied world to pay attention to what’s going on in the Paralympic world. More viewers means more interest in creating better equipment, which means better lives for millions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Co-Founder Elaine Hansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coupon for New Subscribers

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Technology Helps Find Your Bra Size With ThirdLove

This is the bra style that I reviewed. Image: Third Love
This is the bra style that I reviewed. Image: ThirdLove

We’ve covered underthings before (pun intended, plus see Ruth’s fantastic post about Dear Kate underwear), so I thought it was time we tackled a new way to shop for them. It’s often quite difficult to fit yourself for a bra. What size are you? Well, what size were you the last time you went shopping? Have things changed?

We all know that there are a couple of different numbers we have to be concerned with. But when you are pregnant, nursing, previously nursing, or losing or gaining weight, your torso and your breasts will change size and shape. And if you’re shy, like me, you definitely won’t be asking the sales lady to help you find a good fit. Up until now, trial and error was the way to go for finding your current bra size.

A screenshot from the Third Love app. Image: Third Love
A screenshot from the ThirdLove app. Image: ThirdLove

A new company called ThirdLove has come up with a better way to do it in the comfort of your own home. ThirdLove sells bras, underwear, and undershirts, but their bra sizing method is ingenious. You download their app, put on a form fitting tank top (or just your bra), and stand in front of the mirror. The app guides you through some picture taking steps where it measures you from the front and the side. I have no idea how the programming works for this, but, in my experience, it does a pretty decent job.

Once the app takes your measurements, it allows you to select items that are the size it determines will fit you. Products that aren’t available in your size aren’t shown, which would explain why my options were limited (apparently some items are only available in certain cup sizes). There are several options for colors (black, pink, and tan in the style I was able to choose), and you can mix and match base and trim colors. The other kinds of underthings are available in coordinating colors. Place your order through the app, and then wait. A few days later, a nice, overly large box comes in the mail with your items. I ordered just the one bra and it was delicately wrapped it in tissue paper. It’s a fantastic box I can also now use for many other things, but I digress.

The brand-new bra felt like it was made of high quality fabrics, and wasn’t scratchy. The lace looked nice and edged the bra in more places than I would have expected.

Here’s where we get personal. The app measures you pretty accurately, but the numbers may confuse you. In department store bras, generally these days I’m a 36D. In the ThirdLove sizes, I came out as a 33D. I asked my contact at the company about the difference and she said that my experience is typical.

So how does the bra actually fit, knowing that? The cup size fits perfectly. It supports all of the right places without feeling constricting at all. The underwire sits securely against my body. The straps of the variety I chose are attached on the very outside of the cups, not the middle, and so it all feels different from usual, but you get used to it very quickly. The shapes of the cups are more rectangular than triangular, so it works. The band size, though, still seems a bit tight. I think a 34D would have been a better fit for me. I can certainly get it on and fastened, and it is comfortable, but there is zero give in the band elastic. More reason to lose a few pounds!

Would I recommend ThirdLove? Yes, definitely. They make high quality bras in enough colors and styles for most people and the technology in the app does a decent job fitting you. I’m surprised it does so well, since it doesn’t ask for any known size for reference. But the bras fit and are quite comfortable. Rory says the bra makes my breasts look more perky. After two kids, lots of breastfeeding, and plenty of weight loss and gain, that’s a plus in my book. (Sorry, no photos. This is a family blog and photos of me in a bra just aren’t going to make it onto the internet. Sorry, adoring fans.)

The bras and other products at ThirdLove vary in cost, but the prices aren’t drastically different from those at the department store. Give them a look! Beauty + quality + easy peasy lemon squeezy sizing = win. And if you’re not sure, they have free returns and exchanges. Check out their website for their full inventory.

Note: I received a bra for review purposes.

Discovering Detroit And The Wonder Of OnStar

The basement lab at OnStar. Apparently they're in league with Batman! Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
The basement lab at OnStar. Apparently they’re in league with Batman! Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

General Motors flew me out to Detroit last week to learn about OnStar, drive some snazzy new Buicks, and explore the city. Yeah, that last one seemed a little iffy since it has something of a reputation these days, so I was curious to see what they had planned for the trip.

The adventure started off with dinner at the Westin Book Cadillac, our home for the duration of the event. We got to meet the other bloggers on the tour as well as folks from General Motors, Buick, OnStar and a representative from the Michigan Economic Council who talked about their Pure Michigan campaign.

The City of Detroit is, and I think everyone knows this, not at its best right now. We all see the same sad images on the nightly news, but what we don’t see is just how much the city has managed to turn itself around. It’s still a vital and very hopeful community that is making a comeback. We were about to see for ourselves just what the city had to offer.

Detroit and the General Motors Building, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
Detroit and the General Motors Building, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

We spent our first full day in Detroit learning about OnStar. I thought I knew what it was, but really, I didn’t have a clue. Since it’s not on my personal vehicle I’d never used the service. In my mind, it was a service available in GM vehicles that would call for help in a crash and provide directions on occasion, but not be something I’d use everyday.

I underestimated its usefulness by about a million miles. First, touring their command center, you see the scope of it all in a new light. The place looks like something out of a sci-fi flick with huge monitors in a secure room that we were able to look at through a giant glass wall.

There’s a live map with dots that show where people are pressing that OnStar button. The dots are even differentiated between those pressing the button for non-emergency assistance, those using it in an emergency, and those who didn’t press the button at all but had it automatically activate due to an accident.

There were a lot of dots on that map.

It was also interesting to see that there were monitors playing various news channels. The reason is so that they can see what’s happening in the world and be prepared for large emergencies, say an earthquake or tornado, and be ready for the increase in calls for help. No matter what happens when you’re in your car, you are truly #ConnectedbyOnStar in every situation.

The OnStar Command Center, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
The OnStar Command Center, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

And that is the thing about OnStar that completely blew me away. These people, from the executives we spoke with to the call center representatives we got to sit with, don’t see their job as giving directions. They see it as helping people. They see it as saving lives.

Sure, they can point you to the nearest gas station or help you find a hotel on a road trip and are happy to take that call, but they do so much more. They told one story about a hunter who was a doctor and accidentally shot himself. His call wasn’t so much for help as it was to track down his wife so he could say goodbye. He was convinced he was going to die.

OnStar was convinced otherwise and they directed help to where he’d parked his vehicle off in the woods. They saved that man’s life and he surely would have died without their help. They’ve also helped people through delivering babies and even stopped attempted suicides.

There’s also a feature called Stolen Vehicle Slowdown and we got to try it out on a closed road. They said, “Drive it like you stole it!” and I hit the gas. A few seconds later, OnStar got the staged police call, my speed decreased and eventually I had no engine power, just braking and steering. Not only will that mean your car is recovered in one piece, but a thief won’t hurt anyone in a prolonged chase.

My partner in crime, Stephanie McCratic of, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
My partner in crime, Stephanie McCratic of, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

The people that take the emergency calls are all specially trained to handle them just like an operator who takes your call when you dial 911. They know what to do, how to work with local authorities to help you, and how to help save your life. It was amazing.

The last day of our trip we had a ridiculously fun scavenger hunt that took us all around Detroit. The idea was to use OnStar to get directions to various locations that had us seeing what we might not otherwise see. I got to drive the new 2014 Buick Regal which I thoroughly enjoyed. You can read my full review of the Buick Regal here.

We stopped at a Whole Foods that was the first grocery story within the city limits, then purchased canned goods we dropped at a food bank in a less fortunate part of town. We also drove to the beautiful Belle Isle and took a picture of Canada over the water.

A reclaimed abandoned house, part of the Heidelberg Project. Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
A reclaimed abandoned house, part of the Heidelberg Project. Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

Yes, there are areas of Detroit that are as heartbreaking as what you see on television, but our journey around town showed that it’s still a vital city. There are people living and working there who are determined to turn things around and, although it may take awhile, they’re getting it done.

General Motors covered all travel expenses for this trip.

Review: Wee Rockets on the iPad and iPod Touch

Photo: Karen Burnham

Our son is 26 months old and a complete native when it comes to touch screen use. We finally broke down and got him his own iPod Touch over the summer so that we could liberate our phones from his cheerfully grasping hands. This has the bonus effect that everything on it (and on an old original iPad) is locked down, in-app purchases disabled, and every app on it is age appropriate. So now the challenge is keeping it up to date with apps that are interesting to him as he masters old ones. Two perennial favorites are Endless Alphabet and BeBop Blox by Originator.

But the latest mega-hit in our household is Wee Rockets by Wee Taps.

Photo: Wee Taps

This is a super simple game with no text or dialog. In the first screen you see an astronaut (human or alien), dreaming of a spaceship. Then you get the spaceship design screen seen in the screenshot to the right. There are five elements in each spaceship (rocket nozzle, fuselage, port hole, nose cone, and astronaut), and four options for each that the child can choose. This can lead to some awesome looking rockets! Then there’s a liftoff screen where the child pushes the button followed by a visual countdown and rocket launch.

There’s a simple space game where the rocket flies through an asteroid field. The object is to avoid the rocks and pick up little alien critters and planets, but there’s no penalty for hitting the rocks and my son loves the “boom” sounds the asteroids make when the rocket hits them, so at the moment he steers for the rocks enthusiastically. When the spaceship crosses the finish line, you get some “Tada!” music and a screen of the passenger alien celebrating all the alien critters and planets that were collected. Then it starts all over.

It’s so simple that I figured my son would get bored with it easily, but it’s been his favorite for over a week. Each screen has different music, and the design screen has guitar music that sounds a bit like the Seinfeld opening. I’ve been hearing it so much that I feel like I’ll never forget it—luckily, I don’t find it annoying. He enjoys it on both the iPad big screen and on the Touch’s small screen.

It is super easy to play, needing almost no parental intervention to get started. And a full round of play is short enough that it’s easy to wait for him to finish before I need him to do something like eat dinner or get dressed. I’m hoping that this will be a good introduction to some of the more sophisticated build-and-design apps that I’m eying for when he gets older. I can’t wait to play watch him play them!

There is also a Wee Subs app from the same developer, and I’m saving that one for when he gets bored with this one. It looks like that might be awhile! All in all I feel like Wee Rockets was $1.99 well spent.

Diary of a Geeky Pregnancy Weeks 5-8: The Mayor Compliments My Shoes

Diary of a Geeky Pregnancy
Photo via Wikimedia

The continuing adventures of Kate Kotler’s geeky pregnancy…

Week 5: My nausea is out of control! After the bush barfing incident last week, I’ve been loath to leave my house for fear of hurling in public. This has confined me to my apartment watching Netflix and Hulu Plus, while British Boy has free roam of the beautiful city of Chicago.

I have no appetite or energy. Literally, the very thought of eating makes me want to vomit. And, sometimes the very thought of eating makes me actually vomit.

Fun times.

I feel bloated, constipated, and extremely farty all at the same time. In my convalescence—because British Boy was not around to mock me for watching it—I ended up watching What to Expect When You’re Expecting: The Movie. I watched it with the intent of making fun of a schmappy romantic comedy in my head, but instead really ended up really identifying with the Elizabeth Banks character:

“I’m calling bullshit. I’m calling bullshit on the whole [glow] thing, making a human being is really hard! I have no control over my body or my emotions, Gare-bear I’m sorry, all I want to do is punch ya in the face. But, I love you so much, so I don’t mean it. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get ‘the glow’ I just got back acne and hemorrhoids, have you ever seen those? Don’t do it, don’t take the mirror down there. Then I have these purple stretch marks everywhere, and pressure hanging from my uterus that makes me walk like I was kicked in the vag… too far? I didn’t know how else to put it. They say that after you give birth, you forget all of the pain and suffering… I hope so, because pregnancy SUCKS!”

eliz banks 2
Elizabeth Banks plays a preggo hot mess in What to Expect When You’re Expecting: The Movie
Photo via Wikimedia

(Hint: If you’re preggo, don’t watch this movie. You will end up bawling like a fool. I blame you, pregnancy hormones!)

Week 6: This week, we finally have our first appointment with our OB/GYN. We’re getting in just under the wire before the British Boy has to fly back to London to undertake the task of putting his flat on the market so we can use the cash to buy an apartment together.

Unfortunately, the only appointment available was at 8-freakin’-AM. Meaning we needed to get up and out of the house by 7:15AM in order to be there on time.

And, me with no coffee… I actually feel kind of bad for British Boy in this situation, as I am not a morning person to begin with, and with no coffee I’m an absolute pain to deal with.

We currently live in a neighborhood called Ravenswood. And, in fact, we live about two blocks from the Mayor of Chicago (Rahm Emanuel, for those of you not up on Chicago politics) and his family. We actually walk Max the dog by the Mayor’s house on a pretty regular basis, and there are always CPD and Secret Service stationed all up-and-down the block where he lives. In his mayoral campaign, Rahm was pretty famous for his visits to various CTA stops throughout Chicago (as parodied by @MayorEmanuel, AKA Dan Sinker). So as the Montrose Brown Line British Boy and I intend to take to the doc pulls up, it was not that shocking to see the Mayor bounding up the station stairs to take the train into the Loop with us.

photo (1) copy
“I like your f****’ shoes!” (What the Mayor did NOT say.)
Photo via Kate Kotler

Well, not with us, particularly. But, next to us… still, as a lifelong Democrat and political junkie, this makes my morning.

“Good morning, Mr. Mayor!” I say as he and his bodyguards come to stand next to me.

“Good morning,” he replies as he points at my Chuck Taylor low-top sneakers, “I like your shoes!”

(Upon relating this story to my other Dem-pol-junkie friends, they beg me to amend the story by saying that the Mayor said “I like your m-f’ing shoes!” As, Rahm Emanuel is noted for his potty mouth. Alas, he did not, so I cannot say that… though it would have been cool if he had.)

After sitting down, British Boy whispers to me that he had been trying to come up with a pithy statement to nail the Mayor for his evisceration of the Chicago Public Schools, but had failed. He claims that he’ll later let Max poop on the Mayor’s lawn as a political statement.

Oh and the first doctor’s visit went fine, too.

Week 7: British Boy left for London on Tuesday. Pretty much all I did was lay in bed and cry for most of Tuesday and Wednesday. I also ordered junk food (corned beef deli sandwich and deli pickles, Chinese food, and Thai soup) and bought an ice cream cone at 11AM.

You know, because I could.

Across the street from our apartment there is a cute little candy/ice cream shoppe. (I rarely think the use of “shoppe” is warranted, but in this case, it is.) All summer, British Boy and I would stop in there before taking Max on his long evening walk and get ourselves ice cream cones. So, they know us. When I walked in at 11AM, the owner behind the counter said “It’s not time for Max’s walk yet!”

I said, “I’m pregnant, I need New York Cherry ice cream, stat!”

Lovely lady she is, she gave me two scoops. (If you’re ever in Chicago, check out Margie’s Fine Candies—awesome hand-packed ice cream on a cone for $2, super score!)

Prior to leaving for the UK, British Boy and I decided that we had best get married upon his return to ensure he would be able to stay in the States to help me raise our child. And, we kind of like each other, too. Go figure.

When he returned home, he broke this news to his parents—or he might have done it via email before going home, I cannot remember, forgetfulness being one of the many symptoms of pregnancy. So, when he traveled from London to his parents’ house for a weekend visit, I had the opportunity to “meet the parents” for the first time via Skype.

Thankfully, his Mum and Dad are lovely people, and I very much look forward to meeting them in person at our wedding in January.

Week 8: This was a pretty important week in my pregnancy. At my recent doctor’s visit, the nurse practitioner gave me orders for a “dating ultrasound,” used to confirm the age of a pregnancy.

I called Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where the majority of my prenatal care and my eventual delivery will take place, and scheduled an ultrasound appointment.

The night before the ultrasound, I had all kinds of stress dreams: The truth of the matter is, that early pregnancy is pretty scary, because there are a bajillion things which could happen to cause the pregnancy not to be viable. And, despite it being unexpected, in the last two months I have come to really-really-really-REALLY want this baby with all my heart and soul. I have a freakin’ fantastic mother, and I’ve long dreamed of being able to be a freakin’ fantastic mother to some little creature of my own. I just never thought it would happen.

So to say that I was nervous for the results of the ultrasound would be a big understatement.

I arrived at the hospital and chugged about 64 oz of water in prep for my ultrasound. Within five minutes of checking in, I was called back to the exam room. The technician was very nice, and I asked her if it would be possible to hear the baby’s heartbeat during the ultrasound.

“No,” she said, “but you’ll be able to see it.”

photo (1)
Look, it’s a jelly bean!
Photo via Kate Kotler.

She also was kind enough to say she’d print out multiple sets of the ultrasound pictures so I could send them to British Boy and his mum and my mom and keep a set for myself.

I am not an overly emotional person, people—I hate getting weepy and overwrought. But, when the technician pulled up the ultrasound and pointed out the little flutter of my baby’s heartbeat, I will admit, I cried openly.

This is real. There’s a baby in there. It has a heart and it’s beating and he/she is growing bigger and stronger every day. It was too much for me, I just couldn’t keep the tears back. Plus there was a really clear ultrasound picture where you could see the developing spine of the baby.

Viva technology!

Then then not so fun part:

“Okay, sweetie, we need to to an intervaginal ultrasound to determine the placement of your fundus,” the tech said.

“What the heck is a fundus?” I asked, as I wiped gushy Mom tears from my face.

Fundus, n.—The portion of a hollow organ opposite from its’ opening.

In other words, the top of the uterus. The placement of which is measured throughout the pregnancy to determine how far along you are. By the time you’re nine months pregnant, the fundus touches the bottom of your rib cage. Yikes! I didn’t know that.

Viva science!

(Mental note: If this kid is a girl, I gotta foster a love of math/science/tech in her. Tech and science are so cool!)

An interesting concept, but really uncomfortable (especially after drinking 64 oz of water) procedure. Nothing has ever made me feel like I needed to pee worse than my intervaginal ultrasound, and it was not a moment too soon that the tech removed the (very big) wand from my vagina. I literally jumped up and sprinted bare-bottomed to the bathroom inside the exam room just in time to release those 64 oz of water in an appropriate place.

In whole, the appointment took less than 15 minutes. I was shocked! On my way home, I called my Mom to tell her that the baby was healthy with a beating heart. And, I texted British Boy using Facebook Messenger to relay the same.

Next time: Kate announces her pregnancy on social media, travels to NYCC, cosplays the “pregnant-est Dalek,” buys actual maternity clothes, and hears the baby’s heartbeat for the first time.

NASA to Launch High School Students’ Satellite

Source: Montana State University

I’m continually amazed at how technology progresses: Where once computers were the size of warehouses, now they can be as small as spare change. Likewise, where once launching a satellite consumed a small but significant chunk of the GDP of a prosperous nation, now high school students can design a satellite and have it launched into orbit.

A satellite developed and built by about 50 students from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology over the past eight years—the first ever built by high school students—is scheduled to be launched into orbit by NASA November 19, weather permitting.

The satellite, known as TJ3Sat (pronounced TJ-cube-sat), is one of 20 satellites selected by NASA as part of its CubeSat Launch Initiative, which includes cube-shaped research satellites that weigh approximately three pounds, also known as nanosatellites.

The CubeSat initiative isn’t new; people have been designing and launching very small satellites for a couple of decades now. When my husband was in grad school in the 90s his department was involved in such a launch. It just blows my mind that the technology has become accessible enough that even high school students can design a space-capable system now. Congratulations to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology students and good luck for their launch!

[Editor note: GeekMom Jenny sends out a special congratulations to the students at her old high school! (Class of ’91)]

Evernote and Post-it Brand: Making Digital Tangible

Image: Post-it Brand

Now, there are a great many apps out there. From games to GPS, from geocaching to recipe collection, it goes without saying that we live in a culture saturated with apps. But how many of them can really change the way you live and work?

That was the question first and foremost on my mind when I attended the Evernote conference in San Francisco this past week. Our family has been using Evernote for years, now, and it’s helped us streamline our existence considerably. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a naturally organized person. I know I’m a mess when it comes to managing calendars and reminders, and I’ve tried a few methods throughout my life with varying success. Okay, not varying. Usually a resounding failure. And while, as I mentioned, we do use Evernote, it’s always been more as a way to digitize the piles of paper that have grown up around us, especially with the addition of our two kids.

I went to Evernote as part of a group of bloggers brought on by Post-it Brand. We weren’t 100% sure what the connection was, but it was excited to be part of an unveiling.

Really, I don’t think I need to sell the idea of Post-it Notes to this audience. They’re pretty ubiquitous in geek circles, from practical to artistic uses, from research notation to fun with kids. But if you think about it, the Post-it Note is a near perfect invention. It’s something that works simply with the way humans think, that helps us remember what we need, anywhere we need.

Well, almost anywhere.

And that’s where Evernote comes in handy. The Post-it Brand and Evernote collaboration is twofold: it enhances something physical (the Post-it Notes) and simultaneously adds a tangible element to something digital (Evernote). With a special Post-it Note feature now in Evernote, you can scan your Post-it Note and it gets instantly digitized and integrated with your Evernote flow. The tech behind this is pretty cool, too. It’s not just a picture. The scan actually renders everything to black and white, and then re-colors it–your handwriting shows up on a perfectly digitized version of your note. And, of course, it’s color-coded (one of the best parts about Post-it Notes, in my humble opinion).

I’ll be talking more about the Post-it Note connection in a future post, but I also wanted to point out one of the features that’s excited me the most that I found out at Evernote this year. My iPad is one of my closest gadget friends, and since going back to work full-time, I’ve really started integrating it into my workflow. But I noticed in the last few months that I’ve gotten lax about my note-taking.

Image: Post-it Brand

Why? I just don’t work well with the iPad keyboard. In fact, it slows me down. And not to mention, physically writing something down really helps me retain the information. So you can imagine how I excited I was when I learned about the new stylus Evernote is releasing in collaboration with Adonit. Apparently, it’s a total ground-up redesign, and it writes like a real pen. Not a crappy stylus. Not your clumsy finger. I’ll be getting one shortly, so as soon as I do, you can expect a full report.

Learn more about Post-it Brand and Evernote by visiting your local office supply store or by visiting , Post-it Brand on Twitter (@postitproducts ) or Facebook (

I was sent to Evernote 2013 for the purpose of covering Post-it Brand.

The Tech Packed Into The 2014 Jeep Cherokee

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee, Image: Nicole Wakelin
The 2014 Jeep Cherokee, Image: Nicole Wakelin

The 2104 Jeep Cherokee is loaded with enough tech to make a nerd’s head spin. That tech isn’t just the kind that involves gadgets and gizmos, but also features that let the thing climb up and down a mountain and tuck itself into a parking space on a city street.

Cars these days are so much more than cars. They’re extensions of our very tech infused lives and the completely redesigned 2014 Jeep Cherokee is a perfect example of how automakers are merging the two. Let’s start with the gadgety stuff.

2014 Jeep Cherokee Limited, Uconnect, Image: Jeep
2014 Jeep Cherokee Limited, Uconnect, Image: Jeep

There’s an 8.4″ touchscreen that feature Chrysler’s Uconnect system which I’ve found to be one of the most intuitive infotainment systems available. The screen is larger than what you’ll find in many vehicles and it makes it easy to read when following a planned route. It’s well-placed so your eyes travel just to the side, rather than down and way off the road and the buttons are large enough that they’re easy to press and you won’t be accidentally tapping the wrong one.

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee has an impressive number of digital-audio options so no matter how you want to listen to your favorite songs, you’re covered. There’s Bluetooth, USB, and aux-in or you can just plug an SD card right into the dash. The Uconnect has also gotten an upgrade for 2014 that includes apps like Yelp, Pandora, and Slacker and will even let you turn your car into a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Despite having incredible off-road capability, most people won’t likely take their Jeep truly off-road, but there’s some impressive tech that will make it easier if you should choose to give it a try. I drove the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk up a rutted, rocky, dirt road that was so tight in places that I was convinced I’d be taking the paint off their shiny new car.

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, Image: Nicole Wakelin
The 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, Image: Nicole Wakelin

I managed to not destroy the car (phew) thanks in part to the Jeep Jamboree instructors who were along the route telling me exactly how to turn the wheel and to the tech that helped keep the car moving in the right direction. Engaging the Selec-Speed feature keeps it evenly crawling forward between 1-5 MPH without having to touch the brake or gas so you can just focus on steering, much the way hill-descent controls you when you’re coming back down.

It’s also got a feature that is a first for a Chrysler vehicle in its ability to park itself. I tried out the parallel parking feature and not only does it find a spot where it knows you’ll fit, but you just sit back, take your hands off the wheel, and control only the brakes as the car slides into place. It will also neatly back you into a perpendicular spot with the same ease.

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee is that interesting mix of vehicle that will cart you around town as easily as it’ll trek up a mountain, and it has all the tech you’d expect in a tricked out sedan. If you’re looking for some off-road fun in between weekday drives, give it a drive and see for yourself what Jeep has to offer.

Chrysler provided transportation and lodging to attend this event.

World’s Largest Walking Robot is a Dragon

Credit: Guiness World Records
Credit: Guiness World Records

Sometimes playing around to make something seriously cool also leads to amazing innovations. According to the 2014 Guinness World Records, the dragon you see above is the world’s largest walking robot. And it was designed to be part of a stage play of an ancient folk tale!

This dragon (named Tradinno) is 15.72 m (51 ft) long and 8.2m (27 ft) tall. According to cnet:

Getting the dragon to walk properly was no mean feat. Each leg has seven mobile degrees of freedom, allowing it to walk around corners and even move laterally. The company [Zollner Elektronik AG] says it took out a patent on the control concept in combination with the walking algorithm.

Tradinno’s wings are sheathed in polyurethane and reinforced plastic. Its main function is to act in a play, so veins are filled with 21 gallons of stage blood, while 24 pounds of liquid gas allow it to spit fire.

Never before has a staging of Drachenstich in Furth im Wald been this exciting.

Thanks to for the link.

Acer Chromebook C710-2055 Review

The new Chromebook C710-2055 by Acer. image used with permission
The new Chromebook C710-2055 by Acer. image used with permission

The new Chromebook C710-2055 by Aceris a device for individuals who need a compact computer and always have an internet connection. I had an opportunity to use one for a few weeks and run a few tests to see how it works.

The specs for an Acer C710-2055. Image used with permission
The specs for an Acer C710-2055. Image used with permission

We have mainly Windows computers at my  house. I bought one of the first Netbooks (also by Acer) which originally ran Windows 7  Basic and it is still working. It survived an entire iced tea spilled into the keyboard, being reprogrammed to run Puppy Linux, and has been my 7-year-old daughter’s school computer for the last two years. When the Chromebook came in the mail, I was pleased to see the size difference compared to our old Netbook and thought that it was going to be a bigger, stronger, and faster Netbook. But after some time using it, I found that bigger, faster, and stronger didn’t necessarily mean better.

It’s a completely different machine that has a definite learning curve.

I am used to using the Chrome browser on my Windows computers. Chrome as an operating system takes a few days to get used to since it is strictly an internet computer. Over the course of six weeks I put the Chromebook through a computer boot camp of sorts to see what it could handle, and what it couldn’t.

How long did it take to go through the tutorial? It took about thirty minutes, and then putting the new skills into practice took another day or two.

How easy is it to navigate? Similar to experiences Patricia had with the Galaxy Note 8, there was a learning curve. That being said, the navigation is deceptively simple. Really, the only thing different from Windows laptops is right-clicking is done by pressing in the middle of the track pad with two fingers together. Once I got in the routine of only using the computer for writing and internet use, we grew into a nice relationship.

How many tabs could I have open before the machine started lagging? I had about fifteen tabs open varying from text to video before the machine started thinking harder about what I was asking it to do.

How accurate is the battery indicator? (or, how long can video stream on one battery charge?) I started watching a string of Hulu videos at 5:14. When I started the videos, the battery had a full charge. It indicated 3 hours and 36 minutes left before the battery would run out. It shut off at 8:50 close to the predicted time.

How long could I work on one charge? There were similar results when using the computer for just word processing. The battery display showed around 6 hours of battery and it made it through six hours of typing emails and articles (with a smattering of surfing the internet thrown in). When the computer was not in use, it held a charge nicely. I was able to pick up the computer after a full day of not being plugged in and reply to a couple of emails on the remaining battery charge.

Are the apps in the Chrome Web Store any good? Meh. I spent most of a day scouring through the different categories of apps trying to find anything that I would use in the Chrome store. Most of the apps that would be good are “free trials” requiring you to sign up for a service when the trial ends. Others were just things like “change the color of your Facebook background.” Generally, they weren’t very useful. I did find myself going through the Chrome themes though, and adopted a Pinky Pie background for my Chrome webpage. Even though the computer was a loaner for review purposes, I still made sure to have a mash-up background featuring Harry Potter, Darth Vader, and other geeky characters.

Does the offline function work? Yes, you can work offline on documents you save to the cloud drive. But that is all. There is no internet access at my daughter’s Tae Kwondo class, so I tested over a couple of classes what I was able to complete for an article having no internet access. Basically, I could write a rough draft. I wasn’t able to put any link information or pictures in. I was quite happy with the retention of the computer to not forget what I had written while I was offline.

This being said, working offline takes pretty much all functionality away from this computer. When there is no internet, all I was able to do is type a word document.

Can I download and use Picasa since it is a Google program? Nope. I tried to download Picasa and was given a message that it is not compatible with my operating system. The Chrome Web Store offers apps that allow you access to your web albums, but not the Picasa program. I was unable to download the Gimp program, too, though I was able to go to the Chrome Web Store and add Gimp on rollApp. This means as long as I have internet access, I can edit my photographs.

The computer has 320GB of hard drive space and 4GB of RAM so I can use this computer for gaming, right? Not really. I tried downloading a game from PopCap only to get the message that I needed to visit the Chrome Web Store to find an app that could open this type file. I received the same message for downloading Gimp and iTunes. Since these are all Windows executable files, they aren’t usable on the Chromebook. Searching through the Chrome Web Store can sometimes find internet versions of the program or game you are looking for, but nothing that can be played or used directly from the computer itself.

Did I like the new Acer Chromebook? Yes, though it is not the ideal computer for my uses since I am not in an entirely WiFi community. There is no doubt that Acer puts out a reliable product. The Chromebook C710-2055 made me stick to work. I didn’t have a bunch of other windows, audio books, games, iTunes, and videos to distract me from writing. It stood up well to me asking it to do things it wasn’t built to do.

The idea of having an internet driven Netbook is a great one, if you have access to the internet wherever the computer is used. But I am not always connected to the internet, so working on the Chromebook C710-2055 from anywhere except home was difficult. I was unable to have my favorite games at my fingertips and unable to edit images as much as I would like. The Chromebook C710-2055 would probably be great for a student doing basic studying and report writing, and is affordable, costing around $280.

*An Acer Chromebook C710-2055 was loaned for testing and review purposes*