Meilee’s Meccanoid Robot

Meilee asked Santa for a Meccanoid G15 Personal Robot. It was not inexpensive, but when your Hello Kitty-loving, math-averse daughter asks for a programmable robot construction kit, it’s hard to say no. We try our best to bust gender stereotypes in our home, encouraging both kids to enjoy a range of activities and toys. Still, there is a blue-pink divide that persists. I did internal cartwheels when Meilee started talking about this robot. The construction required so much focus and I was heartened to see a project capture Meilee’s attention so deeply.

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Pure joy.
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Meilee started construction on Christmas Day and completed the first build a couple of days after that.
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There were robot parts all over the living room floor.
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Meilee watched several videos to help her with the construction.
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The look of satisfaction and joy.

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Doing “kung fu” with the robot.
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Dancing with Robot.
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Tinkering with Robot’s arm. There would be much tinkering over the holiday break, because parts would come loose or she’d realize she installed a piece incorrectly.

Odes to Meilee and Shen


Poems for Meilee and Shen

The sharp winter sunlight broke the gray and amplified the anticipation of Thanksgiving that pulsed through the air at the Sunday farmers market in Ballard, where there is usually one or a pair of poets who will write you a poem based on your choice of subject for whatever you choose to pay.

I basked in the moment. My husband and I had left the kids at home with my mom, so that we could meander through the market and pop into some of the adjacent retail shops. A date at the Sunday farmers market. What a simple luxury. It was the perfect prelude to a poem – two poems.

Normally, I’m task-oriented at the market. The kids have limited patience for shopping and after they’ve had their fresh mini doughnuts or their cups of fresh cider, they are done. So I don’t usually stop long enough for the sound of the typewriters in mid-stanza to sweep me up in their siren song.

Free from a schedule, I approached @williamthepoet. I asked for two poems, one for Meilee and one for Shen. William took notes as I described each child. Meilee: She is creative and loves to draw. She’s a peacemaker who tries to solve conflicts among her peers. She bring light into a room. Shen: His name means “deep thinker.” He’s analytical, love Minecraft, LEGOs and engineering. He has dimples – which he calls “cute pits” – and knows how to use them.

“Come back in about 20 minutes,” William said.

This is what William and his colleague Marlene wrote:

William and Marlene are part of yourtopicyourprice.com

Geocaching 11.22.15: Sunday Morning Treasure Hunt

Meilee and Shen sign the log in a geocache.
Meilee and Shen sign the log from our second geocache. I love everything about this shot: seeing my kids engaged in an activity that stretches their skills and sensibilities is awesome.

I took the kids geocaching and we’re hooked.

I’d heard about it a while back, but just hadn’t made the time for it. This weekend, I downloaded the Geocaching app, watched several of the orientation videos and enlisted the kids to go on a treasure-hunting adventure.

For the uninitiated, Geocaching is “the world’s largest treasure hunt.” It involves looking for hidden boxes that are cleverly hidden at coordinates throughout the world. Once you find the boxes or containers, you sign the log book, return the cache to its hiding place and move on. There is a culture, community and etiquette involved and it doesn’t take long to pick up the basics. Some of the geocaches also contain trinkets, toys and “trackables” and you can add something or trade – as long as you follow the protocol.

The kids and I started with two caches located in our neighborhood. Sunday was chilly but gloriously sunny. Shen was the navigator and Meilee was in charge of documenting the adventure with her point-and-shoot camera and with notes in her field journal (which came with her National Geographic Kids subscription).

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It took a few minutes for the kids to understand how to manage the compass embedded in the Geocaching app.
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Sometimes, you have to search in areas off the trail or path.
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Geocaches come in many shapes and sizes. This was was magnetic, so we knew we had look for magnetic surfaces. The fence got in the way, so we had to walk all the around it.
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We found our way around the fence and started looking in the nooks and crannies of the guard rail.
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We finally found the geocache. It was tiny and, according to other geocachers, an “easy find.” I guess it’s all relative. For our first geocache, we did pretty well.

Opening the cache:

The geocache
There were two tiny scrolls in the tube. We took turns signing our names.
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Meilee signed her name.
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Shen signed his name and practiced writing the date.
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We chose a second geocache in our neighborhood. The location is hidden in a ravine. You’d never know it was there, but what a gift to be able to have a beautiful oasis amidst all the homes. A cat joined us in our search.
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Meilee took over navigating and Shen had the camera for this round.
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Meilee misread the compass and lead us to a search area opposite of where should have been. But it was a great (low-consequence) lesson to learn.
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We eventually realized we were in the wrong area and found our way to right hiding place. The cat was even more curious about our activities.
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This geocache contained a couple of trinkets. We added a few plastic spider rings leftover from Halloween.
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Success again! Sometimes, people don’t find the geocache, so they will record it as “DNF” – did not find. On this day, we were two for two!

The Future of News…

This morning’s New York Times came packaged with a cardboard box. Inside the sleeve was a virtual reality viewer – branded with The New York Times, GE and Google. Of course. It blows my mind to think about what kind of work went into creating this gee-whiz, deceptively simple experience. The kids immediately were curious about this box – which is called Google Cardboard.

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I had to download the nytvr app from iTunes and get the contraption set up, which didn’t take long. I made the video to record how the kids experienced the tool for the first time. The VR videos on the NYT app are meant to accompany feature articles in today’s paper.

The viewer reminds me of the Poppy 3D, which I got from a Kickstarter campaign. It’s a tool that allows you to use your iPhone to shoot 3D videos. Read post…

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The Wisdom of Tae Kwon Do

The first class at Martial Sports is free. There are no levels per se, just suggested age groups: 3-6, 4-8, 7-12. Drop by anytime, you’re told. If your kids like their first tae kwon do class, they leave with a brand new white belt and a stripe (Duck tape in a choice of colors). You earn one stripe after each class for effort. You must also earn three silver stripes for respect and one gold stripe for listening. Two of the respect stripes and the listening stripe must be earned at home and are awarded at the parents’ discretion. If a student has a sibling, then he or she must earn a sibling stripe, also at the parents’ discretion.

Meilee and Shen have been going to Martial Sports once a week for the past year. We have not tried any other schools, so I don’t have perspective on how Martial Sports compares to others. But, to me, it is an endearing place where instructors Master Purcell (owner) and Master Thammarat clearly have a gift for engaging children.

The structure of the classes is counterintuitive, because they are not organized by skill level. Classifying students by age group keeps them mostly among their peers based on physical size and social maturity. I didn’t understand how the white belt beginners could be in the same class as higher belts. But once Meilee and Shen attended a couple classes, it became clear just how brilliant this system is.

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Meilee gets some air while practicing a kick. This is from the beginning weeks of tae kwon do. Master Purcell was using the pool noodle to help the kids practice their reflex skills.

The class starts with a few laps around the studio and warm-up stretches. Next, the kids do drills of basic techniques. Then, the instructors set up an obstacle course using cones, paddles, shields, punching bags, mats. The obstacle course combines different kicking, punching, balancing, agility and strength skills, and also tests listening capability and stamina. It’s more about fitness and fun than strict technique – though there’s a bit of a Mr. Miyagi (Karate Kid) vibe with the practicing of movement drills such as hopping on one foot and spinning from one orange cone to another and back.

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Any student can do the obstacle course. The more advanced students certainly have better form when doing the kicks and punches, but the course itself does not require a minimum skill level. The beginners do their best and watch the more advanced students. The advanced students understand they have to set an example. In any given class, there is a mix of personalities, maturity levels, and skill. Some kids always do the opposite of what they’re told. Others put in half an effort. Some goof off and get called out by the instructor. There are, of course, kids who participate enthusiastically and without getting warnings from the instructors. In so many ways, tae kwon do class is a microcosm of society. Each child is at a different place in life, but they all participate in the same activity and they all progress. They compete with themselves, not one another, to improve their skills and work toward the next belt level. And yet seeing the advanced students inspires the beginners to strive. Because there is an age range and families can attend whatever class works for their schedule in a given week, the class dynamic constantly shifts and the kids have to figure out how to adapt.

There is much chaos, but it all works. Even amidst the flurry of loud kihaps (yell), chattering parents, and constant motion, there is structure and the kids all seem to be keyed in.

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Here is some of the wisdom that I’ve gleaned while observing the class:

Kids learn by doing: Students can start anytime. They jump in an age-appropriate class and start doing the drills. Through repetition, they refine their form. And they do indeed progress. There’s nothing to worry about.

Dogma doesn’t work with kids: Master Purcell doesn’t drill the kids with philosophy. There are general rules of respect – bowing at the beginning of class and before stepping on or off the mat, bowing to honor students who have just graduated to the next belt level, and listening to instructions, for example – but he’s not dogmatic about the ways of tae kwon do. These kids are still kids and they’re all still developing skills as human beings.

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Master Purcell and other students honor Meilee and Shen after they received their high yellow belts.

Hierarchy works both ways: When the kids line up for class, they line up in descending belt order. It is a show of respect for the more advanced students. But when the class breaks for a drink of water, the lower belts get to line up a the water fountain first.

Loud kihaps helps you find your voice: Kihaps are the yells that students make when performing a move. Translated, it means “spirited yell” and “focused energy.” New students tend to be shy about yelling “ha!” or “hya!” but when they feel comfortable after a few classes, the kihap becomes second nature. When my kids began kihapping with all their force, it was the sweetest sound. I know they are on their way to being able to speak up for themselves.

Four Rules of Self Defense: Master Purcell speaks of these rules to the kids in the context of confronting a playground bully. The difference between fighting and self defense is that the object of self defense is to make the other person stop. The objective of fighting is to hurt the other person. Tae kwon do is about self defense.

  • Use your words. If you find yourself in a potential conflict, try talking it out.
  • If words don’t work, walk away. Don’t run away. If you run, it triggers a chase.
  • If the other person strikes you, use your blocking techniques and yell “stop it.” “Words can be a weapon.” If you yell loudly, it will attract the teacher’s attention.
  • If the other person continues to strike, then you use self defense and only enough to stop the other person to give you time to escape to find a grownup.

Every action has a purpose: Master Purcell often reminds the kids that even when they’re not doing anything, they’re doing something. In the context of class, if they’re sitting and waiting and doing “nothing” it means that they should be listening. When they practice kicking paddles, they’re practicing accuracy. When they kick the shield, they’re practicing power.

It is one of the highlights of my week to watch Meilee and Shen at tae kwon do. I consider it a happy place, where kids can be kids while working toward a higher goal, learning discipline and respect. Best of all, Meilee and Shen can be in the same class.

High yellow belts

Learning How to Program at Seattle CoderDojo

Meilee during her first Seattle CoderDojo class. Sept. 20, 2014

Meilee began learning how to use Scratch a year ago in July (read the original post). Her first published project was called The Unicorn Ghost and its premise was rudimentary: click on the button to make the unicorn move. She played around a little and started projects, but didn’t progress beyond one-trick ponies, so to speak. Recently, I saw an in article in Geewire.com about CoderDojo, a free weekly programming club for kids ages 8-18 that was founded in Seattle but now has local clubs across the country. And the Seattle CoderDojo club meets on the Amazon campus – which is across the street from my office. After we checked in at security, the kids were each given a souvenir CoderDojo badge, which was a great touch that made them feel official.

Seattle CoderDojo badge
Seattle CoderDojo badge.

The kids who attend are divided up according to programming interest: Scratch, HTML/JavaScript, PHP, C# and Java. We found our way to the Scratch room and settled in, Meilee with my laptop and Shen with the iPad to keep him entertained. While Shen isn’t ready for Scratch, I wanted him to tag along so that he gets exposure to the club. The first 15 minutes or so of the session is spent listening to the lead mentor describe some basics of how to get started on the day’s assignment. CoderDojo has a set of projects that will help kids learn basic commands in Scratch. After the introduction, each participant can work at his/her own pace and seek help as needed from one of the volunteer mentors.

A Seattle CoderDojo mentor helps Meilee with a series of commands.
A Seattle CoderDojo mentor helps Meilee with a series of commands.

Meilee’s first challenge was to use repeat loops to draw patterns with an arrow. Doing so required some thought as to what commands to use and some basic geometry. While the math was beyond Meilee’s experience, she was lucky that one of the volunteers happened to be a math teacher.

A Seattle CoderDojo volunteer who happened to be a math teacher helped Meilee with some geometry.
A Seattle CoderDojo volunteer who happened to be a math teacher helped Meilee with some geometry.

What appeals to me about CoderDojo is that it provides a place to go where Meilee can be around other kids who are interested in Scratch and where she can get expert help from mentors. Best of all, the club is FREE (the magic word for DIY Tiger Mom) to attend. During a quick break, I ran into a woman in the restroom who said that the CoderDojo in New York had a waiting list of 500 kids. (500!) Luckily, that isn’t the case in Seattle. I had to ask my husband to take Meilee to the second session, because I had another appointment. Later in the day, she asked if she could show me what she learned at CoderDojo. It was so thrilling to hear her describe her thought process. As I mentioned in the post I wrote last year, I don’t necessarily want Meilee to become a software engineer. I just want her to learn how to analyze a challenge – regardless of what it is – and engineer a solution. I think she’s on her way.

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Phytoplankton Soup!

It’s the last week before the school year starts and we squeezed in one last summer field trip to Friday Harbor, where some of the scientists I work with at Institute for Systems Biology have been conducting research related to ocean acidification. The Friday Harbor Labs belong to the University of Washington, but other researchers can rent the facilities, too.

Getting to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island required a significant amount of patience from the kids: 2 hours to Anacortes, a short wait for the ferry, 1 hour on the ferry.

Ferry to Friday Harbor
Ferry to Friday Harbor

But once we arrived, there was plenty to see at the labs.

UW's Friday Harbor Labs
UW’s Friday Harbor Labs

The kids got to peer into the microscope to see various phytoplankton, which are responsible for photosynthesis and play a key role in the food web in seawater and freshwater. There are hundreds of types of phytoplankton, but the the sample the kids got to see primarily contained Thalassiosira, Coscinodiscus, Chaetoceros, and Ditylum, as well as zooplankton and larvae (e.g. sea urchin, jelly fish). These organisms live in the waters just off the pier at the Friday Harbor Labs.

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There is a small pool in the lobby of the main lab building, where visitors can see some of the creatures that live in the waters.

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In the afternoon, the researchers (Monica Orellana, Allison Lee and Jake Valenzuela) took a row boat into the bay to collect water samples. Allison is using a mesh phytoplankton net that concentrates the organisms in a cup-like container.

Sampling

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Phytoplankton net

The reason the scientists were collecting samples was to be able to study how these organisms respond to different pH levels.

Ocean Acidification Experiments

It wasn’t all fun for the kids. Because I did have to do a little work, there were a few moments of down time when the kids got bored.

Boredom

I’m fortunate that I was able to bring the kids along on this trip. I don’t know what their minds retained from that day, but they can say that they went to the labs and looked into a microscope. Sometimes, that’s all that it takes to inspire a kid.

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