Engineering Crazy Straws

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When I was a kid, a “crazy straw” had a figure-eight loop and that was fun enough. Now, there’s the NuOp Design Strawz – kits that allow you to engineer your own crazy straw. You can find them online or at specialty stores. I found Strawz at my neighborhood grocery store on clearance for $6.50 per set (the original price was $10.95). What comes in the box are 44 pieces of long and short straws and connectors.

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It was a no-brainer purchase – especially at a clearance price – for an easy engineering lesson veiled as fun. I purposely use the term “engineer” instead of “make” or “create” so that the kids continue to hear the word associated with the concept of designing and building solutions. To spur a little friendly competition, I told the kids that whoever had the best-designed straw would win a treat. It wasn’t necessarily a fair playing field since Shen’s fine motor skills aren’t as developed as Meilee’s. He started to pout (below) when Meilee finished constructing her straw before he did.

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But this presented an opportunity for me to encourage Meilee as the older sister to help her younger brother and to remind Shen that pouting doesn’t get the job done. They worked together to build Shen’s straw. And then they forgot that it had started out as a contest.

It’s a brilliant kit given that the kids have to think about how to join pieces together in a way that is not only crazy but functional. There is also physics involved: water sprays everywhere if the joints aren’t connected properly to the straws or, if a section of the straw is at an awkward angle, it could knock over a glass. (Yes, water spilled all over the table and the floor.) I imagine that you could hack a kit together using flexible straws. I might explore that with the kids to test their ingenuity.

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Later, during dinner, I asked Meilee what she understood about engineering. Here was her response:

“When you engineer something, you think about how am I going to make this? What materials am I going to need to do it? When you’re building the shapes, it’s fun to learn how to connect the straws and unconnect (sic) the straws. There are different sizes of straws. The small straws help you in small places. The big straws help you in big places. You can make different kinds of things – like a sword. You can be capable of doing lots of things like a house of straws.”

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I was glad she had an inkling, but I also didn’t hear her say something that indicated she understood the thought process behind engineering. She started to give me additional examples related to craft projects – things that weren’t necessarily focused on designing solutions – so I shifted the conversation to talking about how an engineer would approach the challenge of building a bridge across a river.

“An engineer would have to think about the distance across the river, right?” I asked. “And if it’s a highway, the bridge would have to support a lot of cars and big trucks. That would affect the kind of materials that the engineer chooses to build the bridge. If the bridge were just for people, the engineer wouldn’t have to use the same kinds of materials.”

“Logs and rope!” Meilee exclaimed.

Something clicked, but we’ll see what sticks over time. The logs and rope comment reminds me that we could use popsicle sticks to engineer a bridge. A project for another day.

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Learning to Code: Meilee’s First Scratch Project

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Screen shot of Meilee’s “The Unicorn Ghost” coding project.

Meilee has shared her first coding project from Scratch: “The Unicorn Ghost.” When you share a project it appears on the home page of the Scratch site under “recently shared” and Meilee was more excited about being listed (briefly) on the home page and wanting to see the stats (how many views) than actually completing the project. I guess that’s all right. I like looking at site stats, too. It took much prodding/nagging to get Meilee to complete this project. She was easily frustrated and gave up, in my opinion, far too easily. I kept telling her that nothing worthwhile was easy. She responded by whining and sulking. To push through the last few steps, I even had to dangle bacon: You can have some bacon IF you finish this project. (It was breakfast time.) My hope is to get Meilee more familiar with the Scratch interface by having her create some simple projects. And then we can graduate to animating some of her drawings. Check out her project: The Unicorn Ghost Read previous post about MIT’s Scratch coding site for kids.

DIY Tiger Mom #FAIL

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I bought inexpensive pedometers for the kids with the intention of recording the number of steps they take in a day for the following reasons:

  1. To teach the kids about tracking data over a period of time. (Science)
  2. To teach the kids about averages. (Math)
  3. To inspire a little healthy competition between the two of them and with themselves… (Determination/ambition/persistence)
  4. In order to to keep them from sitting still too long. An “active” person takes 10,000 steps per day. (Exercise)
  5. Because I track my data (sleep, exercise, heart rate, calories burned) with my Basis watch, I want my kids to share in this experience in a simpler way.

We’ve had the pedometers for five days. They have not worn them consistently (all day, every day, at the same time). And, somehow this afternoon, Meilee lost hers in the house. Or maybe outside. I don’t know.

The reason I even attempted this “project” was that before my husband accidentally put his pedometer in the washing machine, the kids would fight over who got to wear daddy’s pedometer. I thought I could shape that interest into a learning experience.

If this missing pedometer turns up, maybe we’ll try again.

See: Meilee and Shen Visit a Science Lab

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I gave the kids a quick tour of the labs at Institute for Systems Biology where I work. They wanted to see robots, so I showed them a couple of machines that automate some repetitive tasks, such as this lab shaker which was shaking beakers of samples.

“If I were that bottle, I’d be dizzy!” Meilee exclaimed.

I never know what experiences stay with my kids. This little tour made an impression on Shen in particular. Four days after the fact, Shen asked if he would get to visit my office again. He then he turned to my husband and said excitedly that he got to see a robot.

Meet an Artist: Erica Baugh Teaches Meilee About Mixing Colors

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Anyone you meet has the potential to influence how you think or act in a positive way. I’m hoping that with every artist Meilee meets that she gets a cumulative understanding about just how different artists can be and be inspired to grow beyond rainbows and princesses. She does have moments of expression that clearly show great potential, but she falls back too easily into the kind of rudimentary drawings you’d expect from a 6 year old. But because I’ve seen that glimmer of brilliance, I want to make sure that she is set up to discover her own tipping point.

This weekend, we were happy to have our friends Colin and Erica Baugh visit from Los Angeles. Colin is a former colleague and Erica is a painter. She saw some of Meilee’s drawings that I had posted to Instagram and asked if it was possible to purchase two of them. I responded that I’d be happy to give her some reproductions of those particular drawings (and a home-cooked meal) in exchange for an art lesson for Meilee.

Erica Baugh teaches Meilee about mixing colors.
Erica Baugh teaches Meilee about mixing colors.

As I cooked dinner, Erica began talking to Meilee about how to mix paints. She quizzed Meilee on some basic combinations: How do you get purple? (Red plus blue.) How do you get green? (Blue plus yellow) How do you get orange? (Yellow plus red.)

And so it went for a few minutes. Then, they started mixing colors in order to make a color wheel.

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Sometimes you have to paint alongside a professional in order to understand it.

Meilee enjoyed learning about how to create different shades of a given color. “Like pumpkin orange, cold blue, warm blue,” she recalled.

Just before we had to clean up for dinner, Meilee interviewed Erica. My husband recorded the conversation (that’s him chuckling in the background). You will also see in the video below what happened the next morning. Big thanks to Erica for her generosity of time, spirit and paints!

Artist Erica Baugh on Facebook

Research: Spatial Ability Indicates Creativity – aka Buy More LEGOs

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Do you have LEGO blocks everywhere in your house like we do? If my son could read, he would be waving this July 15 New York Times article about a recent study on how spatial ability can be a better indicator of a child’s future creativity and innovation than math and verbal skills. From the article:

Cognitive psychologists have long suspected that spatial ability — sometimes referred to as the “orphan ability” for its tendency to go undetected — is key to success in technical fields. Earlier studies have shown that students with a high spatial aptitude are not only overrepresented in those fields, but may receive little guidance in high school and underachieve as a result. (Note to parents: Legos and chemistry sets are considered good gifts for the spatial relations set.)

We have more pieces of LEGO than we can count, especially after my mother-in-law brought over a box of my husband’s bricks she had saved from when he was a child. It’s only July, but Shen has started to ask for a Star Wars LEGO set for Christmas.

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But given this study, which was published on July 15 in the journal Psychological Science, I’d rather get one of the LEGO education sets. If you visit the LEGO education site, you will see sets that focus on science, design and technology and are categorized by school-age group. I have my eye on the Early Simple Machines set, which offers these learning objectives:

  • Exploring basic mechanical principles such as gears, levers, pulleys, wheels and axles
  • Investigating force, buoyancy and balance
  • Solving problems through design

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It’s not cheap, though. One listing on Amazon.com shows the cost is $128. Ouch. It looks like I need to spend some time on Ebay and Craigslist.

Full NYT article

LEGO Education

Learning to Code: Kids Explore MIT’s Scratch Programming Language

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Meilee and Shen react with pure delight after seeing the result of code they programmed, using MIT’s Scratch language.

For a child today, learning to program can be just as useful, if not more, than learning to speak a foreign language like Spanish or Mandarin. In a way, computer code is a foreign language. If you live in a place like Seattle, speaking code is “geek rigueur.” Considering our children are so-called ‘net natives or digital natives who were born in the age of iPhones, tablets and apps, it makes sense for them to have at least a basic understanding of programming. Their vocabulary is utterly different from what my husband and I knew when we were their age. Given the high demand for a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) workforce, I believe that I would be doing my children a disservice if I didn’t expose them to computer programming. Even if they never enter a related field, the thought processes involved with programming can help my kids hone their analytical skills.

Hector Rovira, a co-worker of mine at Institute for Systems Biology who’s a software architect, suggested that I check out Scratch. It’s a programming language developed by MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group. First of all, how cool is it that there’s a Lifelong Kindergarten Group? I love this description of the program:

In school, they learn specific facts and skills, but rarely get the opportunity to design things — or to learn about the process of designing things. Outside school, they interact with electronic toys and games, but they don’t learn how to invent new ones. In the Lifelong Kindergarten group, we’re trying to change that. We believe that it is critically important for all children, from all backgrounds, to grow up knowing how to design, create, and express themselves.

Hector explained that the programming club at his daughter’s elementary school uses Scratch to teach kids about coding and assured me that it would be suitable even for Meilee, who’s 6. So we gave it a try.

The Scratch interface.
The Scratch interface.

Scratch is designed for kids aged 8-16, but anyone interested in learning programming can use the site. You can create any number of projects from simple animations to video games. You also can share your projects with the Scratch community. There’s a helpful tutorial that explains the essentials. When you create a new project, you can choose a character – what’s called a sprite – and then you can program movement, background, sounds, costumes and such. You also can upload original images with which to work. I helped Meilee start the tutorial and then sat back to see what she could do. Basic command scripts are found in color-coded blocks that can be dragged from the master list (above left) to the adjacent scripts pane (above center).

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It wasn’t all fun, as you can see above. But the first time Meilee and Shen saw their character move and change color as the result of scripts that Meilee programmed, they experienced the purest joy (as in the lead photo above). The look in Meilee’s eyes showed a great sense of accomplishment – and that was just from the tutorial.

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An additional point of joy for me is that Scratch is FREE. You have to sign up for an account on behalf of your child, but there’s no cost to join the community or use the site. This is worthwhile computer time. I fully anticipate being able to say to my children, “You can’t play video games unless it’s one you create.” Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but maybe it’s not.

Try Scratch or learn more about the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT.

Watch professor Mitch Resnick, Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group and LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at MIT Media Lab, in his TED Talk explaining why we need to teach kids to code.