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Posts Tagged ‘science and education’

Announcing Charlie’s Playhouse Evolution and Art Contest!

Do your kids love science? Do they love art? Are they creative? Get them involved with Charlie’s Playhouse Evolution and Art Contest. They choose a creature, change its environment and figure out what would happen with the evolution of that creature in its new environment. Visit Charlie’s Playhouse’s website for complete information and entry forms. The competition is divided into three age ranges and there are plenty of prizes to win. I’m one of the judges, and I can’t wait to see what all the kids think of.

If your kids aren’t yet familiar with the theory of evolution and Charles Darwin, this is a great opportunity to teach them. Then have them enter the contest! Entries are due by November 15, 2010 and winners will be announced on December 6, 2010. No purchase necessary.

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Announcing Charlie’s Playhouse Evolution and Art Contest!

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Teaching Kids Computers, Part 1

Image by Ivan Walsh, used under Creative Commons License

If geeks had ranks, I’d be a General or an Admiral, or maybe Grand Vizier. I know things that no mortal should know, arcane minutiae like how to set a proxy server in an .hgrc file or how to program in assembly language.

I don’t want my kids to know most of this stuff. Heck, I don’t think anyone should have to know most of this stuff. Usually, my wife and I encourage the kids to play outside, or play a board game, or read a book, or do something real instead of being in front of any kind of screen.

However, I also recognize that computers are useful sometimes, and I know that being proficient is a valuable skill. I wanted to show my kids a few tools that they could use for basic tasks, like taking pictures, ripping CDs, and creating drawings. I was surprised with the results.

When I teach anything, to any audience, I always try to get to the doing as fast as possible. In this case, there was one lesson’s worth of information that we simply had to cover before moving on to the fun stuff.

I started with a brief lesson on computer architecture and file system structure. Without going into too much detail, I explained the essential concepts that anyone needs to use a computer:

  • Basic architecture, including the processor, memory, and disk, and a little bit about what an operating system does. This is mostly important to explain why saving is necessary.
  • The structure of the file system, and how things like USB drives or cameras have their own file system
  • Filenames and file extensions and how these map to applications

This lesson is not very exciting, but it’s crucial, because your kids will be saving and loading files. To make it a little more interesting, you can use a file browser to demonstrate the structure of the file system.

I gave this lesson to my kids some time last year when they were ages 9, 10, 11 and 13. They had been using a computer for years, mostly for playing games, but this was the first time I tried to give them a deeper understanding and some useful tools.

In Part 2 of this post, I’ll describe the applications I taught my kids (all free!) and some of the things my kids have done with their knowledge.

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Teaching Kids Computers, Part 1

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Need A Microscope For Your iPhone? There’s a Hack For That

Images Courtesy of I-Wei from Crabfu Artworks

Ever want to take a picture of that cool insect you found on your last nature hike but all you had was your iPhone? Well I-Wei, a friend of GeekDad and the great mind behind Crabfu Artworks has a hack for you. By attaching an inexpensive field microscope to his iPhone case he was able to take pictures of the tiny world around us. Check out his video and pictures at The Crabfu Artworks Blog.

I’ve always been a big fan of I-Wei’s steam powered machines so make sure you check out Crabfu Steam Works for some awesome toys.

If you do make an iPhone scope remember to post your pictures to the GeekDad Flickr Group

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Need A Microscope For Your iPhone? There’s a Hack For That

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Happy 25th Birthday to the Buckyball!

Buckminister Fuller's geodesic domes inspired the buckyball

Buckminister Fuller's geodesic dome for Expo 67 in Montreal inspired the buckyball. Image: Kathy Ceceri

Carbon is a remarkable little atom. When it’s arranged in sheets, it’s soft as pencil lead. Arrange it in crystals, and it’s hard as diamonds. On September 4, 1985, three scientists trying to figure out the structure of a carbon molecule known as C60 began playing around with toothpicks and jellybeans. One of them began sticking his jellybean atoms together in the shape of alternating pentagons and hexagons. Interestingly, his structure began to curve into a ball.

To the scientists, the sphere created this arrangement of candy and sticks looked an awful lot like the geodesic dome built by visionary architect R. Buckminster Fuller in 1967 for the world’s fair in Montreal.  As it turned out, the jellybean model of C60 was correct, and the molecule discovered was named “buckminsterfullerene” after its inspiration.

The exhibit “Molecules That Matter” used dog toys as buckyballs. Image: Kathy Ceceri

This was not some esoteric finding. The advent of the fullerene, which can be round, ellipsoid or tube-shaped, led to the entire nanotech industry. Today fullerenes show up in everything from ultra-light, ultra-strong bicycle frames and tennis rackets to “nanopants” that are soft and breathable yet repeal water and stains. And they make great desk toys, too.

You can still visit Bucky Fuller’s geodesic dome in Montreal, too. Today it houses the Biosphere, a museum about the region’s ecology. There’s an exhibit about Fuller inside.

Thanks to the Tang Museum’s exhibit Molecules That Matter, which introduced my family to Buckyballs.  Curator Ray Giguere noted that dog toys made very good models. And thanks to Google, which today has an animated doodle honoring the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the Buckyball.

See the article here:
Happy 25th Birthday to the Buckyball!

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Vacation Science on Cape Cod

When organizing family vacations, I have to keep in mind that half of the six of us are not beach people. That means wherever we go in the summer, I need to schedule activities both in and out of the water.

For the family vacation this summer to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I contacted the local Chamber of Commerce for suggestions. They were incredibly helpful, pointing me to two local museums that everyone enjoyed: the Heritage Museum and Gardens in Sandwich, Massachusetts and the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster.

Cape Cod Bay Walk

Hikers along the nature walk from the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History to Cape Cod bay

We’d first visited the Heritage Museum over a decade ago, on a short trip to Cape Cod for a friend’s wedding. At the time, what most delighted me was a beautifully restored carousel. On this visit, the carousel was as I remembered but the museum had improved and updated their facilities, especially with children in mind.

The museum now boasts a place just for children called Hidden Hollow.  The area has outdoor musical instruments and a stage,  natural wooden blocks to construct toys, another area to dig in the dirt and even a secluded spot under a tree where my twins disappeared to hoe the soil.

It should be even more fun when the treehouse is finished next year.

I like walking tours, so we also spent time on the Heritage trails looking at the gardens. My two boys joined me in walking the outdoor labyrinth. I’ve walked a labyrinth in a church before but never one outside. I fear my youngest son had too much energy to quite get the point of using it as a spiritual centering device though he liked the concept. He had much more fun with his twin sister in a garden maze that was designed for kids.

On our way out of Heritage, we spent time admiring the cars in the JK Lilly, III Antique Automobile Museum. Despite the collection of classic cars, including one driven by Steve McQueen, the hands down favorite of my kids was the Ford Model T that they could climb on.

The Cape Code Museum of Natural History is located near the bay beaches on the Cape. While they have fascinating indoor exhibits, including blue and pumpkin colored lobsters, the main attractions are the nature trails through salt marshes, over the sand dunes, to the beaches and tidal pools and then back.

The day we were there, flooding has washed out one of the trails so we had to go the long way around. It was worth it. I saw kids on the trail with binoculars and butterfly nets. Alas, we were not quite as prepared.

Inside the museum is extremely kid-friendly. There’s a hands-on room with microscopes, various sea items like shells and large wooden puzzles that my younger ones liked putting together. Downstairs, the aquarium included the lobsters, moon jellies, several species of turtles, American eels, spider crabs, bullfrogs, and other fish. The museum also has an active honey bee observation hive and a well-stocked library. (Though I believe my teenage daughter’s use of the public computers there to check her email was not quite what museum officials had in mind as a learning experience.)

We would go back to both museums, especially to do some further hiking. My kids would likely vote for the Heritage Museum as their favorite because of the ice cream snack bar but I’d vote for the science museum so I can hike the other two trails.

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Vacation Science on Cape Cod

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Vacation Science on Cape Cod

When organizing family vacations, I have to keep in mind that half of the six of us are not beach people. That means wherever we go in the summer, I need to schedule activities both in and out of the water.

For the family vacation this summer to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I contacted the local Chamber of Commerce for suggestions. They were incredibly helpful, pointing me to two local museums that everyone enjoyed: the Heritage Museum and Gardens in Sandwich, Massachusetts and the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster.

Cape Cod Bay Walk

Hikers along the nature walk from the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History to Cape Cod bay

We’d first visited the Heritage Museum over a decade ago, on a short trip to Cape Cod for a friend’s wedding. At the time, what most delighted me was a beautifully restored carousel. On this visit, the carousel was as I remembered but the museum had improved and updated their facilities, especially with children in mind.

The museum now boasts a place just for children called Hidden Hollow.  The area has outdoor musical instruments and a stage,  natural wooden blocks to construct toys, another area to dig in the dirt and even a secluded spot under a tree where my twins disappeared to hoe the soil.

It should be even more fun when the treehouse is finished next year.

I like walking tours, so we also spent time on the Heritage trails looking at the gardens. My two boys joined me in walking the outdoor labyrinth. I’ve walked a labyrinth in a church before but never one outside. I fear my youngest son had too much energy to quite get the point of using it as a spiritual centering device though he liked the concept. He had much more fun with his twin sister in a garden maze that was designed for kids.

On our way out of Heritage, we spent time admiring the cars in the JK Lilly, III Antique Automobile Museum. Despite the collection of classic cars, including one driven by Steve McQueen, the hands down favorite of my kids was the Ford Model T that they could climb on.

The Cape Code Museum of Natural History is located near the bay beaches on the Cape. While they have fascinating indoor exhibits, including blue and pumpkin colored lobsters, the main attractions are the nature trails through salt marshes, over the sand dunes, to the beaches and tidal pools and then back.

The day we were there, flooding has washed out one of the trails so we had to go the long way around. It was worth it. I saw kids on the trail with binoculars and butterfly nets. Alas, we were not quite as prepared.

Inside the museum is extremely kid-friendly. There’s a hands-on room with microscopes, various sea items like shells and large wooden puzzles that my younger ones liked putting together. Downstairs, the aquarium included the lobsters, moon jellies, several species of turtles, American eels, spider crabs, bullfrogs, and other fish. The museum also has an active honey bee observation hive and a well-stocked library. (Though I believe my teenage daughter’s use of the public computers there to check her email was not quite what museum officials had in mind as a learning experience.)

We would go back to both museums, especially to do some further hiking. My kids would likely vote for the Heritage Museum as their favorite because of the ice cream snack bar but I’d vote for the science museum so I can hike the other two trails.

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Vacation Science on Cape Cod

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Results Of The MoonBots Challenge Announced — Houston, We Have A Winner!

After months of competing, the first MoonBots Challenge has come to a close with Team Landroids, a group from Livingston, New Jersey taking first place. The team is made up for five eighth-grade neighborhood friends named Karlin, Stanley, Brian, Gage and Jeffrey. The Landroids were captained by a dad: John Yeh. The winning team’s members are veterans of FIRST Lego League and are no strangers to science and robotic competitions. You can learn more about the Landroids and the protoypes they worked through by watching their documentary or visiting their Web site.

While the Landroids’ final run for the points makes the competition look easy (watch their video after the jump), it was anything but simple. All of their plans were nearly dashed as  problem after problem popped up for the Landroids. But in the end, all was good and the Landroids emerged victoriuous.

Master Lego robot builder and MoonBots judge, Steve Hassenplug, talked about what set Team Landroids apart from the others. “I am very impressed with the results from all the finalists.  Clearly all the teams worked hard and had a great deal of fun, but it appeared Landroids approached the competition with a level of professionalism unmatched by any other team, and they truly earned first place. I enjoyed the opportunity to judge the excellent work the teams did.  They were all very impressive.”

Also recognized were the Shadowed Craters, who captured second place, and Team Moonwalk, which grabbed third. The Shadowed Craters were profiled here a couple weeks ago and are from the Miramar area of San Diego. Team Moonwalk is another New Jersey team (with part of the team hailing from Connecticut).

Anousheh Ansari, another MoonBots judge, commented on third place winners, Team Moonwalk: “Two things stood out for me in this team. One was because they used their technical knowledge to outline the scientific benefits of space exploration but also looked into the social benefits of space exploration and the opportunity for different nations to collaborate and create a lasting peace. This was one of my personal experiences on my flight to ISS. This collaborative aspect of space is what most people forget about.”

The long road to the finals began with more than 200 applications from around the globe, but mainly located in the United States. These teams were tasked with creating a documentary about their team, creating a prototype using Lego Digital Designer, Google Sketchup or LDraw and create a Web site to share information about their team.

From there, the field was narrowed down to 20 teams for Phase Two. (You can review the documentary entries from the top 20 teams who made it into Phase Two here and here.) These Phase Two teams were given Mindstorms kits and a set of objectives to complete within a three minute time period. Based on the team’s performance and some other criteria, a winner was chosen by a panel. Judges for this final phase included Anousheh Ansari, Steve Hassenplug, Dean Kamen and Jeff Kodosky.

“Congratulations to all of the MoonBots winners and finalists,” said Jeff Kodosky, Cofounder and NI Business and Technology Fellow at National Instruments. “NI is proud to join with all the other MoonBots sponsors and partners in this incredibly innovative challenge that will help advance science, technology, engineering and math education throughout the world.”

Team Landroids will enjoy  the grand prize of a trip to Billund, Denmark to visit Lego headquarters, as well as a  kit and registration for either FIRST Robotics FRC or FTC. The Shadowed Craters receive a 64GB iPod Touch for each team member and a kit and registration for FIRST competition. Team Moonwalk receives a kit and registration for a FIRST competition too.

Thanks to all teams who entered. Every team did a fantastic job, according to William Pomerantz, Senior Director of Space Prizes for the X Prize Foundation. “The work these students did this summer was truly spectacular. The mission very closely paralleled the work our Google Lunar X Prize teams were doing, so we greatly enjoyed watching those technical challenges worked out on a different scale. The new era of lunar exploration is being built on the contribution of people of all ages and nationalities, and it is clear that the MoonBots participants have what it takes to make important contributions.”

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Results Of The MoonBots Challenge Announced — Houston, We Have A Winner!

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Free Museum Day, September 25th! (GeekDad Wayback Machine)

Hand-made sweater worn by Fred Rogers, on disp...
Mr. Rogers’s sweater. Image via Wikipedia

Free Museum Day 2010 is quickly approaching! Mark your calendars and participate this year. On September 25th, you and a guest will get free general admission to hundreds of museums and cultural spots around the country. Important note! You can’t just show up and get in for free. They won’t let you in. You need to visit the Free Museum Day website and download a free admission card.

Smithsonian magazine is the organization you have to thank for this annual event. If you aren’t lucky enough to live near the plethora of free Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., this annual free museum day is the next best thing.

Perhaps this will be your opportunity to visit one of the museums in our 100 Geeky Places or 100 More Geeky Places lists. Or use it as an opportunity to check out a smaller museum near you that you’ve been meaning to visit. Even my small-ish town has one museum on their list.

Check out their Featured Museums page, or search by state, address or on a Google map. Follow them at Twitter at @MuseumDay. But when the day arrives, be sure to remember your admission card, downloadable from their website.

[Note: A version of this article was published on GeekDad in August of 2009.]

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Free Museum Day, September 25th! (GeekDad Wayback Machine)

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GeekDad Visits the Mystic Aquarium

Watching the belugas at Mystic Aquarium

Let me start by saying that I find beluga whales to be creepy. Fish shouldn’t have necks – even if they are mammals. Belugas swim by and turn their head to look at you as they pass. Even though I found them creepy, I still found them incredibly interesting.

The Mystic Aquarium offers New England’s only beluga whales. Right when you walk in, you get an up-close encounter with the belugas through a series of underwater windows. Their striking white forms stand out sharply in the cool, blue water.

They earned the nickname “Sea Canary” because they are so vocal, making high-pitched squeaks, squeals, clucks and whistles. They seem as interested in watching us as we are in watching them.

I realize that many of you will not be able to make the trek to Connecticut to see Kela, Naku and Juno.  You can check out the Vancouver Aquarium’s Beluga Cam for a remote view.

For those of you who can make it to Mystic, there is plenty to see beside the belugas. I was very impressed by Kodiak, one of the their Steller sea lions. He weighs in at 1,700 pounds and easily dwarfs every other sea lion I have seen. The geeklets were even more impressed when we got witness sea lion poo.

Mystic has a few hands-on exhibits. You can pat a shark, ray, crab, or starfish. The kids were excited by the opportunity. None of the animals seemed as excited about the petting.

I’m used to Boston’s New England Aquarium, which is a great destination for a rainy day. Lots of the Mystic Aquarium is outdoors. We enjoyed a hot, sunny day exploring their exhibits. There are plenty of great indoor exhibits to see on a bad weather day.

The other feature of the Mystic Aquarium is the Institute for Exploration run by Dr. Robert Ballard. The Challenge of the Deep exhibition shares some of Ballard’s most recent discoveries, deep sea exploration, and his discovery of the wreckage of the R.M.S. Titanic. This was a bit over the head of my six-year old.

In the end, the kids had fun and we had fun. I learned some things and the kids learned some new things. That makes it a worthwhile GeekDad visit.

Photo by Doug Cornelius.

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GeekDad Visits the Mystic Aquarium

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Review: Mobad Games are Good for Kids


Mobad Games, an apps developer for children, is slightly to one side of our last feature developer, Duck Duck Moose. But they are worth keeping an eye on, and as you would have seen from GeekDad Jonathan’s recent review of My First Hidden Pictures they are producing apps that are well targeted to children’s development.

They are different from Duck Duck Moose in that Mobad have ventured out and found partners who think about children and engage in presenting the world to them. The team at Mobad recognised the need to pull in people already creating great content for kids which have allowed them to bring their design and technical flair to build some great apps. As CEO Kory Jones from Mobad points out, “Apps need to be simple, but well executed which requires a combination of exceptional design and great technical ability. We don’t subscribe to the ‘more apps are better, crank them out as fast as you can’ approach, treat each one like a unique piece of art and the sales will follow.”

So, like any company they have a focus on sales, but that isn’t to say they don’t get kids, they do. In my engagement with Mobad’s CEO, Kory Jones he insisted, “‘edutainment’ is a crappy word so don’t use it in relation to Mobad, please.” It is good to hear that Mobad Games is working hard to distance itself from this type of gaming for kids.

The results? Well, so far two great partnerships with Highlights Magazine and BBC Earth— and some whispers about a few others not far away. There is also their next app with Highlights, which will be Highlights Sticker Fun which continue to use the great illustrations from highlights to great games and puzzles of varying levels.

My children are obsessed with the documentaries coming out of BBC Earth, David Attenborough inspired of course, but since his retirement the interest has continued. So, the use of their great images in their forthcoming app BBC Life Matchgame is of great interest. So many apps have content that sells children short. This is something Mobad and their partners appear to be unwilling to do. And, parents should thank them for it. Quality content will become a defining mark of quality apps.

It is also pleasing to see a team who are well versed in tech and design, getting excited about the possibilities of the future of technology for children. Clearly, Kory gets it: “The future of the technology is a much bigger question. To me that speaks of simple touch control interfaces on personal, portable devices. That is the future of education and entertainment for kids. When you have a device a three-year-old can pick up and navigate with no direction (as mine does) it’s a game changer. All the poorly designed sheets of paper home work my seven- year-old brings home could go away. The replacement will be well-designed, live on a device like this, grade it as he’s doing it, explain it with animation if he gets something wrong then give him a new similar question to see if he really got it.”

That type of thinking certainly demands that we keep an eye on where Mobad head in the future. I know I’ll be checking out every app they put out to see if they engage my own kids.

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Review: Mobad Games are Good for Kids

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