Category Archives: Technology

Maker Camp 2016

A picture of two 4 inch handmade dolls - a boy and a princess standing in front of a night sky.

Boy character made by R, age 10. Princess made by Liz.

I am happy to announce my newest camp, Making in Action! This is a joint venture with another local, family-owned business, WizzBangz. Gwen Thompson and I have been teaching S.T.E.A.M. classes for the last few years (three for me, and four for Gwen) and we are excited to team up to offer this creative camp.

Maker Camp

The final project will be a stop-motion animation movie which will be written by the students. During camp, students will learn a variety of “maker” techniques, such as sewing, painting, using the resources at hand (that means a lot of cardboard) and in doing so, will learn about the engineering design process and the importance of trying, prototyping and making changes to their story and their designs.

A picture of a pipe cleaner 4-inch doll skeleton.

Learn how to make dolls from pipe cleaners with the book, Felt Wee Folk.

Through each step, Gwen and I will act as facilitators to each group of students. We will guide them through the design process and help them to edit and make changes to their story. In addition, we will be helping them to create their own characters and mini-sets. By creating their own characters, students will be utilizing problem-solving skills, as well as learning the value of multiple iterations and working collaboratively.

R, age 10, is sewing on the boy's clothing.

R, age 10, is sewing on the boy’s clothing.

We will be using a variety of materials and resources with a special emphasis on empowering our students with a maker mindset. We hope you will join us at The Einstein School for this fabulous camp. To register, go to Making in Action 2016.

A picture of half a cereal box painted to look likethe night sky...had two 4-inch dolls as a characters.

The backdrop is hand painted. It’s also made from half a cereal box.

Book Review :: Twitter Safety and Privacy

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

Twitter Safety and Privacy

Twitter Safety and Privacy

Ages: 12 and up
Henneberg, Susan. Twitter Safety and Privacy: a guide to microblogging. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.: New York, 2014.

The six chapters in this book cover more information (than you could imagine) about Twitter and online safety, but the information will find a good audience with teens and their worried parents.

Students are legally allowed to open a Twitter account (without a parent’s permission) at age thirteen. As a parent myself, I can see why parents might be a little frightened at this prospect. Thankfully, the book offers a lot of helpful advice on how to use Twitter responsibly (including many anecdotes about how famous people have misused Twitter to their own detriment).

Chapters three and four provide numerous examples of “tweets gone bad.” These include tweets from famous people who thought they were sending private messages or sent a rage-fueled rant before letting themselves cool down. There is a strong emphasis on using Twitter appropriately and a good reminder that we need to think before we speak.

While there is a little bit of fear-mongering in the book, concerned parents may prefer the “think first” approach that it also advocates. With all books of this type, I highly recommend that a parent read it with their teenager. You are not going to convince them to remember everything they read, but you will show your teenager that the topic is important and it will be easier to bring up later in casual conversation.

App Review :: Reading Rainbow’s Skybrary

Besides certain programming apps, there are only a few apps with a lot of staying power at our house. The app by Reading Rainbow happens to be one of them. I am not endorsed by them – I just happen to love this app and want to share why.

My boys are sharing some brotherly love while reading a Reading Rainbow book.

My boys are sharing some brotherly love while reading a Reading Rainbow book.

I love it because it has to do with books and learning. My kids love it because they like books, but they also are drawn to technology, so it’s a perfect compromise to satisfy their tech needs. It’s well worth the $60 for a yearly subscription. We do not have a TV that connects to cable, so connecting to our local PBS station isn’t really an option (not that they play Reading Rainbow anymore). We’ve been subscribers for well over a year now and I renew our subscription every six months.  I’m waiting for the kids to tire of it, but they never do.

Like many of our activities, it goes in and out of favor, but one of our favorite features is the ability to save five personal books in your own “backpack.”

My "backpack" currently has 4 books. You can read these books off-line as long as they are in the backpack.

My “backpack” currently has 4 books. You can read these books off-line as long as they are in the backpack.

I love that you can read your books –  without Internet access – as long as they are in a backpack. My husband and I, and both of our boys, have each created our own backpacks. That’s twenty books that we can take on car trips or office visits to read. And, while my six-year-old is becoming a much better reader, it was a life-saver for those days when my oldest needed more help with school work and my youngest wanted me to read a book. He could go and have the book read aloud to him. Each book gives the option of reading it yourself or having it read to you.

Flip the page with your finger.

Flip the page with your finger – preferably NOT the one you are using to bite your nails!

Many of the books are picture books, but they also include a number of non-fiction titles, such as the National Geographic series and a few picture book biographies. The pages “flip” and every other page contains a brief animation that needs to be activated by the user (they touch the screen to run the 2-second animation). Readers can choose to ignore the animations and just move onto the next page.

In addition to the books, there are a number of videos that feature the host, Lavar Burton. The video offerings are different depending on what “book island” you are visiting. There are seven islands and new videos are added or removed quite often.

A shot of one of the many islands, "Genius Academy." Choose some books or watch a few select videos.

A shot of one of the many islands, “Genius Academy.” Choose some books or watch a few select videos.

In our ongoing attempt to reduce the “stuff” in our house, we have given the subscription to our youngest child as a Christmas present. We just wrapped up the ipad mini and stuck it under the tree. That way it doesn’t have to be one more thing that you need to purchase throughout the year. Books are always a gift.

Tinkering, Creativity & New Ideas

I’m a bit behind in my Tinkering class. First, we were at the beach. The waves, boogie boarding and sand castles took up all of my attention. And, rightly so!

Second, the circuit board components took me a lot longer to craft. As in — many, many days of testing, stripping wires, running out to the hardware store, sanding blocks of wood, stripping more wires, being patient as the youngest child was too rough with the delicate wires, running back to the hardware store for another hot glue gun since ours chose that moment to break…and on and on and on. It was quite a process that I had to go through to end up with a small offering of circuitry. And, the silly part is that there’s so much more we want to add to our collection. We definitely aren’t finished with parts yet, but in the meantime, we’ve (mostly) figured out how everything works.

There's a large part of me that wants to scream at how long it took to complete these! But, the process and the experience was well worth it.

There’s a large part of me that wants to scream at how long it took to complete these!

There was also no “one-way” set of instructions for each component…and that was done on purpose by the course designers…I think. The short “how to” video from the course made everything look so easy, and while it wasn’t hard, it was time consuming. It was tinkering.

It’s not easy to create an online class that encompasses the very type of learning that they are discussing – constructivist. An impressive, yet frustrating feat. The value of having a hands-on facilitator nearby is fairly obvious.

But, rather than dwell on how long the process took, I would rather think about how much I’ve grown – not as a competent wire stripper or soldering iron expert. Most definitely not…I still need to practice and once the soldering iron did come out, the husband suddenly became very interested in “my” tinkering work!

My goal with this course was to become more comfortable with electricity – to allow my children and my summer camp students a chance to learn about circuits and batteries and bulbs with a hands-on approach. As a Montessori-trained educator and project-based homeschool user, I am quite used to being a facilitator rather than a director. There is a lot of time devoted to tinkering and exploring in my camps (and definitely at home).

Even so, I am still impressed with how much more I am able to look at things in a new way. As we were making room in the garage for the soldering iron set-up, I found the ceiling fan that my husband replaced last month. Rather than look at it and push it back into the corner, I gleefully grabbed it and wondered what sort of wires I could harvest from it. The boys were so excited that they could dismantle it, they grabbed their tool boxes and got to work.

The kids (ages 9 and 6) as they dismantle an old fan.

The kids (ages 9 and 6) as they dismantle an old fan.

I think a key part of tinkering is that it has the potential to lead to creativity. I like the idea that you are looking at something differently. That’s being creative – thinking about using something in a new way. It doesn’t have to be a brand new idea…just new to you.


Tinkering & STEM

My "Tinkering" tool box

My “Tinkering” tool box

Last week I began the Coursera course, Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning. This free MOOC, taught by the folks at The Exploratorium in San Fransisco, has been on my radar for many months. This past week laid the foundation for the concept of tinkering, and whetted our appetites for some of the upcoming hands-on projects.

This Wednesday, we start building. I’m ready. The kids are ready. I’m going to try and post some of our projects to the blog as we go…even some of our failures. The course focuses on circuits and I’m looking forward to becoming more comfortable with allowing the kids to mess around with electricity. I’m also taking notes for next year’s camp. I really like the idea of a “maker” camp in the near future.

The MOOC course provided a list of materials that we needed to purchase...thank goodness because I'm not quite sure what all of this stuff does!

The MOOC course provided a list of materials that we needed to purchase…thank goodness because I’m not quite sure what all of this stuff does! The Makey Makey doesn’t count…we cracked that open as soon as it arrived!


Five ipad apps for computer programming concepts

I prefer to use technology as a tool, not necessarily as the objective of the learning. We didn’t purchase an ipad for our home until our youngest child was almost five. Dr. Montessori’s method for learning clearly shows that young children (under the age of six) need a lot of hands-on tools for learning – manipulatives to engage all of the senses.

Technology as a toolMy youngest son is drawing a butterfly by looking at a picture of one

That being said, I think the ipad is a really cool tool for learning. We’ve purchased a lot of apps that mimic Montessori-style work without having to host the extra shelf space. It’s great for young homeschoolers (and my small house). My favorites are here and here.

My children (especially the youngest) really enjoy these Montessori apps, but they also spend an equal amount of time playing around with the other apps we have. These apps are specifically designed to mimic useful skills in computer programming – namely solving problems, breaking down steps, and being creative.


These are the apps that I find beneficial, which are simultaneously used and enjoyed by my children.

1. Daisy the Dinosaur (ages 5-7) – FREE
This app is for kids who need a bit of motivation and instant gratification when it comes to making things happen. Kids are given Daisy and a few commands with which to make her do something (grow bigger, smaller, walk forward, backward, etc.). It will have a short value on your ipad, but can be just enough to get kids interested in the concept of creating – rather than consuming.

2. Kodable (ages 5-7) – FREE – $9.99
One of my favorite things about the Kodable app is the “teacher mode.” Previously, I think this was called “for parents,” but the concept is the same. It’s a place where you as a parent or teacher can learn more about how Kodable works and why it is beneficial to students. They have learning guides which walk an adult through the key programming concepts that they aim to impart (loops, conditions, sequences). You can purchase additional guides (functions, and bugs) to increase your app’s longevity. The actual coding is done to a fluffy furball and you must tell him (or her) what to do and make it through the maze. You are given repeated chances if you make a mistake. Teachers have the ability to create different class accounts.

3. Scratch Jr. (ages 5-7) – FREE
This app has been a long time in the making and while I think it isn’t nearly as good as Scratch (version 1.4 or 2.0), it is meant for younger kids. My five-year-old watches his older brother make things in MIT’s educational programming language Scratch, but since he’s learning to read, Scratch has been outside of his ability. Until now. Scratch Jr. requires no reading skills and just a little bit of help from mom, dad or big brother to decipher some of the icon-based blocks. Kids can create freely or view some examples and try to remake them and put their own spin on the creation (as my five-year-old did with the farm example). He is also typing in titles and asking about spelling – all good things for a kindergartener to be discovering on his own!

4. Move the Turtle (ages 7 and up) – $2.99
This app is a bit more difficult and requires reading skills since the tutorials ask the child to perform a certain task (and there is no audio option). The support is limited to email and there is no explanation for concepts. This is definitely a “play with it and figure it out” kind of app. Thankfully, there are a number of examples so one could figure out to make your turtle move.

5. Tynker (ages 7 and up) – FREE for trial, $5 for complete app
My nine-year-old has worked with MIT’s Scratch and doesn’t play with many of these apps anymore – except for the updated Tynker. Tynker is based on Scratch and looks very similar, but has some creative limitations on the ipad platform. He understands this and enjoys creating and hacking this system as best he can – knowing that it is just different than Scratch, but still enjoyable. The complete app offers step-by-step “challenges” for those who are new to Scratch or Tynker – teaching them how certain blocks work, gradually increasing the knowledge and blocks as they go. Once they’ve mastered the teaching examples, they can use the “create” function and make their own projects.

For the adults (and older teens) in your life, I recommend Cargo-Bot. This game will simultaneously delight and frustrate you while bringing out that hidden competitive streak. My husband and I both have spent time trying to figure out the best way to “code” these bots to get them to move their cargo. Happy Learning!