Archive for Learning


May 28, 2009

Some Disassembly Required

What do you get when you cross a kid with a broken lawnmower? A take-apart project, of course. (That was too easy.) We’ve had the lawnmower since last fall when a neighbor put it out on trash day. My son, who likes to pick stuff out of other people’s trash, saw it through our bay window, and I knew what had to be done. We knocked on the neighbor’s door and asked if it was really trash. Yes, it is. Chip down the street tried to fix it but couldn’t, so it’s just best to get rid of it, she said.

Can we have it so the kids can take it apart? “Sure, have at it!”

Mr. Enigma spent some time late last fall emptying the gas and oil tanks and removing the engine from the chassis. He covered it up and left it near our shed, where snow promptly buried it for a couple of months. Over the long winter, the kids forgot about it. Then I mentioned it a couple of nights ago. My daughter wasn’t terribly interested, but there was no holding The Duke back.

The next morning, we peeled back the tarp and unveiled the hardware. As I lifted the engine to move it to the grass, The Duke said, “Hey, that’s a spark plug!” It was — I didn’t know he knew what a spark plug was! When, exactly, did he acquire that knowledge?

behind the curtain

[What’s behind curtain number one?]

Before any project, it’s important to gather the right tools. The Duke has his own toolbox, complete with several screwdrivers of differing sizes and heads, an adjustable wrench, a hat, and measuring tape, which he apparently thought he’d need but didn’t. I also brought out my toolbox in case I had some tools he was missing. (I’m not sure which we have more of in this house, tools or books.)

you gotta choose the right tools

[Carefully choosing the right tools.]

The Duke patiently examined the engine from all angles, planning his attack. We agreed that he should remove the plastic engine cover first since it was covering so much. It took us a while to get the sockets on the handle, but once I figured out we needed a pesky little adapter, the Duke was all set.

first piece

[The first piece came off easily.]

The socket set was our friend today. The Duke removed a lot of bolts surprisingly easily. Others required a little more oomph and some better leverage. My inner (and outer) feminist was not going to be happy if neither of us could budge any bolts and I had to ask big, strong, manly Mr. Enigma to loosen them for us.

standing gives you leverage

[Gaining some leverage.]

Occasionally, a less, um, refined tool was needed. Did you know that when a part is really stuck, you can sometimes smash it off?

sometimes you need a hammer

[Descendant of Thor swings his mighty hammer.]

Overall, I was impressed with The Duke’s careful attention to detail, his patience, and his use of different tools to do different jobs. He even grabbed a very small, thin flathead screwdriver and used it as a lever to bend some metal flashing that was blocking two bolts.

After about an hour, which included a couple of short breaks on the swings and zip line, The Duke announced, “That’s enough for today.”

hour of work

[A day’s work.]

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November 23, 2008

We’ve Got Stuff … Big Stuff

Like most kids, my kids love to make things. They especially like to make something new out of something old. Sometimes their projects involve power tools and lots of dust-making in the shop with Mr. Enigma, and other times they just require simple materials.

The constant state of making means that we throw almost nothing away. That old egg beater would make a perfect laser blaster on a space ship, dontcha know! Of course, that means you must keep a lot of parts lying about just waiting to be recycled into something cool.

box of parts

It also means we have to keep our eyes peeled for treasures wherever we go. In fact, my son, The Duke, has become quite the diamond-in-the-rough finder. “Mommy, look what I got!” is a common phrase here on Sundays, the day before trash pickup on our street. Just a few weeks ago he came home with a nice, old, rusty, electric double burner.

“What do you want that for?” I asked.

“I’m gonna take it apart.”

You can’t argue with that, but you can argue with keeping someone else’s old, rusty, food-encrusted burner in your house. So we put it on our “3-season porch,” and the Duke agreed that after he took it apart, we’d throw it all away. So couple of nights ago, he took it apart, and we’ve tossed the sharp and nasty bits. But even the grownups realized we couldn’t throw it all away. Look at these burners. Can’t you see them on a robot? Danger, Will Robinson!

old burners

I love the kids’ projects not only because every one of them is unique, but also because the kids bring so much excitement, creativity, and joy to the table (or backyard, or shop) every time. The result is a creation straight out of their imaginations.

Take this contraption, for example. It’s a DNA scrambler, but I’m sure you knew that. And I’m sure you knew it wouldn’t work without the hat.

what is it?

Basically, you use the scrambler to turn yourself into another creature. You select the creature (some animals, some magical, some mythical, some newly imagined) from the table of creatures. Next, you use the blue dial to set the size of the creature, and then a bunch of other stuff happens with lights and menus and stuff like that (use your imagination, please!), and then you turn into that creature.

A few weeks ago, The Duke made the scrambler over the course of a couple of evenings. Mr. Enigma was working in the shop, and the Duke went in to check it out. The next thing you know, he had decided to make his own project. (A common occurrence when Mr. Enigma is noodling around in the shop.) The first night, the Duke planned out what he would make and started drawing the different creatures on the hardboard. He finished about half the grid that first night. Then he put it down and came back to it another night, when he asked me for some ideas for other creatures he could add to the grid. Once he had finished the grid, he and Mr. Enigma put the finishing touches on the hardboard, and then they made the hat.

And there you have a new, handmade, unique toy. Lots of imagination went into it, and lots of imagination is required to play with it.
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June 13, 2008

Spring Update: Ides of March Eve/Einstein’s Birthday/Pi Day

I‘ve been so bloggedy-blog-blog busy that I haven’t had time to, um, blog in the past several weeks. How sad that it’s almost summer and I haven’t finished writing about spring. I’ll never get all the details down now, but trust me when I say we had a lot of fun this spring, what with the 5,000 field trips I registered us for and the general whoopin’ it up we do on a daily basis.

Okay, we don’t whoop all that much, but when we do, we really whoop like nobody’s business. In a nerdy sort of way.

Take, for instance, March 14, otherwise known as the day before the Ides of March or Pi Day (3.14 - get it?). Plus, it’s someone’s birthday. Of all people, Albert Einstein had the good sense to be born on Pi Day. How fortuitous for Albert and for me! I have kids, so I now have an excuse to celebrate Einstein’s birthday, which is something that never occurred to me to do when I was young. Can’t imagine why. Now, of course, I’m all for adding more birthday celebrations to our calendar, especially if they s-t-r-e-t-c-h out the time until my next birthday.

The Einstein birthday party was actually my daughter’s idea. She was mad that I didn’t tell her it was Einstein’s birthday until 9 o’clock that evening. “Now I missed it!” she complained. But I assured her that she could have an impromptu party the next day, and none of the kids on the block were likely to know or care that we were a day late. After all, she had no idea about Einstein’s birthday until I told her, right? So in the morning she created the invitations and helped me with the party activities. When one of her friends arrived for the party, we explained what the party was and what we’d be doing, to which he replied, “I thought this was going to be a normal party.”

Normal, schmormal. Some party highlights:

The Einstein Quiz
In which we asked truly trivial questions about Albert Einstein’s life that none of the kids could answer correctly. Can you believe none of them even knew he was German? Sheesh, take an educated guess, people! (NB: The oldest kid at the party was 10.)

If I Only Had a Brain
In which art imitated life. Look at the photo of Albert. Something’s missing — his brain! No wonder his hair is always a mess.

Someone stole Albert's brain!

I bet he has a splitting headache.
(Note the awesomeness of my Photoshop skillz.)

Luckily, the kids stepped in and played Pin the Brain on Einstein, with one child actually sticking a brain in the hole in the astrophysicist’s head. Nice job!

Pin the brain on Einstein
Pin another brain on Einstein

I wish it were this easy for me to get another brain or two.

Let Them Eat Pi
In which a 9-year-old used a pie (and whipped cream) to explain pi. Pie humbly and doubly serves humanity by being both a math manipulative and a dessert, while pi serves as the shortest mathematical term with the longest value (more than a trillion digits and counting!).

Pi Pie

Mathematically good!

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February 18, 2008

Alice.org: Free Programming Tool for Kids

My family spent Saturday afternoon at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Family Day in Boston, where we saw all kinds of great stuff. I’ll post more about the expo a little later, but I want to tell you first about one particularly outstanding product we learned about while there: a free programming interface for kids called Alice.

I’m excited about this program because my 9-year-old has said she wants to learn how to make her own computer games, and we’ve been looking for a child-friendly application to help her learn how to do that. We couldn’t find anything that looked like a 9-year-old programming novice would be able to learn quickly and easily. Half the battle with helping young kids maintain their excitement is to enable them to complete a project in a short period of time (like two hours on the first try). Everything we looked at either had a huge learning curve or would have probably been too difficult for our daughter right now.

And then, Saturday, we just stumbled upon Alice by accident.

Carnegie Mellon developed Alice, a drag-and-drop programming interface that allows you to create 3D worlds in a Java-like language. Sometime this year, a new version (3.0) of Alice will be released which will enable actual Java programming, not Java-like programming.

In the meantime, two versions are available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, standard Alice, designed for high school and college-aged “kids” and Storytelling Alice, for middle school-aged kids. I think even some younger kids will be able to use Storytelling Alice, given that my 7-year-old son sat on my lap this morning and explained to me how he thought it worked. After watching me for a few minutes, he definitely understood the basic idea behind how to build a world and make the characters in it do what we wanted them to do.

Both versions of Alice come with a library of scenes and characters; each character has a handful (or more) of ready-to-use methods (actions), so that if you want your character to walk, run, talk, turn, smile, cry, think, etc., you can just drag that method from a list and drop it into your program. You can also create new methods.

I took the 30-minute tutorial for Storytelling Alice and then spent another 30 minutes playing with the software. In that hour, I learned how to create a new world, add characters to it, and program those characters to do what I wanted them to do. I also learned some programming terminology, like what a method is. I finished a brief movie in about 30 minutes. Not too shabby!

The Alice.org website also offers free instructional materials, a user forum, additional characters and scenes, and other helpful information. When I have time to play with the tool more, I’ll learn how to do programming loops, “while” statements, and other standard programming thingies (pardon my technical language) that will allow my characters to interact more naturally. Eventually, I suppose I’ll let my daughter have a turn. It was her idea to learn how to program, wasn’t it?

And did I mention that Alice is free?

My only disappointment thus far is with the publishing capability. The “publish as movie” function doesn’t work yet (at least not in Storytelling Alice). And if you publish as an HTML page, anyone who wants to view the page has to have Java, Java 3D, and Java Media Console installed on his/her computer.

Otherwise, Alice rocks. Check it out at Alice.org.

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