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).


on the trail
It took a few minutes for the kids to understand how to manage the compass embedded in the Geocaching app.
Through the branches
Sometimes, you have to search in areas off the trail or path.
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.
We found our way around the fence and started looking in the nooks and crannies of the guard rail.
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.
Meilee signed her name.
Log 2
Shen signed his name and practiced writing the date.
Geocache 2
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.
Urban woods
Meilee took over navigating and Shen had the camera for this round.
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.
The Cat
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.
Found 2
This geocache contained a couple of trinkets. We added a few plastic spider rings leftover from Halloween.
We found it
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!

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 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.


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.




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.



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.



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.


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.


Kickstarter: Poppy 3D and iPhone

Shen is viewing a 3D movie through a Poppy device.
Shen is viewing a 3D movie through a Poppy device.

My friend Ethan Lowry and his co-developer, Joe Heitzeberg, launched a Kickstarter project for the Poppy, a device that turns your iPhone into a 3D camera. I backed the project at the $39 level and received my Poppy right after Christmas. The concept is reminiscent of the View-Master, which we all have probably played with as children. (The initial fundraising goal for Poppy was $40,000, but the project ultimately raised more than $190,000.) Poppy uses optics to create the 3D effect. You slip your iPhone into the slot and flip the front optics box and start shooting photos or video using the Poppy app. It’s an ingenious and affordable device that I thought would offer us a fun way to collaborate and create.





After Poppy started shipping, Ethan and Joe sent an email to all the Kickstarter backers inviting them to submit Poppy photos and videos for a chance to win another device. I had just purchased the Animation Studio kit, a box that transforms into a miniature set for a stop-motion movie, as a project for the kids. I thought it might be fun to use the Poppy to make a 3D stop-motion movie. Meilee and I had made a stop-motion movie in the past using Legos and the Stop Motion Studio iPhone app, but we certainly had not shot anything in 3D.

Animation Studio is a fold-out box that serves as a miniature movie set. The kit includes different backgrounds, a how-to book, and cut-out characters and props.

We decided to create a simple story using two Christmas ornaments and a gingerbread cookie. We shot it using the Poppy and then created the movie with the Stop Motion Studio app. Meilee proudly claims that she did the actual eating of the cookie. I ended up rendering two versions. In the original, the titles are hard to read and the pace is a little too fast. The second version has cleaner titles and a slightly slower pace. You can watch them as is to get a sense of the plot, but it’s best viewed through a Poppy, of course.

Version 1:

Version 2:

On New Year’s Day, we went to the beach near our house and shot this short movie about beach combing.

Marine Biology: Volunteering to Protect Baby Harbor Seals

A baby harbor seal rests on the sidewalk near the shore.
A baby harbor seal rests on the sidewalk by the water.

The emergency email landed in my queue at 3:30 in the afternoon earlier this week. A baby harbor seal had come ashore and the Seal Sitters needed volunteers to take shifts standing guard around the perimeter. The kids, my mom and I had attended the Seal Sitters orientation in July but we hadn’t had the opportunity yet to seal sit. I quickly called the volunteer coordinator and offered to take the 6-8 p.m. shift. I left work early – luckily, I have the flexibility to be able to adjust my hours – and rushed home to get the kids and my mom to head to West Seattle, where the seal was located. We had to negotiate rush-hour traffic, which more than doubled our drive time to about 45 minutes. (I mention this only because it affected the patience level of my kids and, as parents know, you have a small window before whining and meltdowns begin.)

Shen and Meilee observe a baby harbor seal as it rests.
Shen and Meilee observe a harbor seal pup as it rests.

We weren’t given many details other than the nearest cross streets and ended up having to walk several blocks to get to where first responders from Seal Sitters had already taped off a wide perimeter around the pup. It was our job to warn passers-by that there was a seal pup resting on the walkway below and let them know it was OK to observe from a distance. It was helpful that where the pup was resting was at the base of a ramp that had railings – a good barrier to keep the humans from getting too close and disturbing the pup.

Volunteers are given mini pamphlets about harbor seals to share with the public.
Volunteers are given mini pamphlets about harbor seals to share with the public.

Seal Sitters is an organization that’s a member of NOAA’s Pacific Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network. During seal pup birthing season, mom seals and their pups often “haul out” or come ashore to rest, regulate their body temperature and nurse. The mom may leave her baby on shore while she forages for more food and return later to nurse. Members of the stranding network respond to reports of seal sightings on shore.

In West Seattle, Seal Sitters serve as the first responders as well as “guards” and community educators. It is illegal to go near a marine mammal. Unfortunately, humans are often curious about seals that have hauled out and get too close and end up harming a pup or scaring the mom so much that she abandons her pup. There have been many cases where people have taken seal pups to the vet because they thought it was injured. It’s a traumatizing experience for the pup and, because it’s illegal to touch or transport a marine mammal, the vet can’t accept the seal as a patient.

Signs are posted to warn passers-by.
Signs are posted to warn passers-by.

I wanted Meilee and Shen to become kid ambassadors for Seal Sitters for several reasons:

  • To learn about volunteerism and giving back to the community.
  • To expose them to marine biology and the importance of not disturbing natural processes.
  • To learn to appreciate the beauty of our environment (e.g. being on the water at sunset).
  • To begin to get a sense about committing to an important task and fulfilling the requirements (seal sitting for an entire two-hour shift and helping to educate others about harbor seals).
  • To bring life to the book “Leopard & Silkie” which is a true story about a boy who helps protect pups that came ashore in 2007. The book was co-authored by Brenda Peterson (words) and Robin Lindsey (photographs) who are also the co-founded Seal Sitters. Meilee and Shen had received the book as a gift from their grandpa a couple of years ago.
Shen and Meilee sit and watch the seal.
Shen and Meilee sit and watch the seal.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share how our shift actually went. Meilee and Shen were excited to see the seal at first and cooed about how cute it was. But because this was an unplanned event, I didn’t have time to make dinner before rushing out the door. I grabbed some granola bars and a bag of Goldfish crackers, which the kids devoured, but they were still hungry. Remember, they’d already endured the 45-minute drive through rush hour. We also faced the setting sun, which caused the kids to complain about the blinding light.

Grumpiness set in during the second hour of our seal sitting shift.
Grumpiness set in during the second hour of our seal-sitting shift.

They bickered about who got which pair of binoculars and who got to sit in the grownup chair and who got to hold the bag of Goldfish. They repeatedly asked whether we would go get some dinner and when it would be time to leave. I’d brought notebooks and markers, but I made the conscious decision to leave the Kindle at home so the kids wouldn’t be staring at a tablet instead of nature.

It was a gorgeous evening.
It was a gorgeous evening. (The kids with grandma.)

I interviewed the kids individually about their experience and this is what they said:


Q: What did you learn from seal sitting?

Meilee: “Waiting a lot is kinda hard, but seeing the baby seal move is cute. Sometimes you have to wait a long time before you can do something else.”

Q: But what did you learn about the seals?

Meilee: “Harbor seals and other kinds of seals will stay safe when they’re on shore and nobody will disturb them.”

Q: What would you tell your friends about harbor seals?

Meilee: “I would tell them that different seals have different coats. What I mean by coats is spots and patterns. For example, harbor seals have polka dots, dark blue or black spots. And if you see a harbor seal and it’s just resting, laying down somewhere being still and quiet…it’s just resting. When animals are resting, it’s good to let them be. And be quiet. That’s what I would tell my friends.”

SHEN, Age 4:

Q: What did you like about seeing the seal?

Shen: “The seal moves.”

Q: What was the seal doing?

Shen: “The seal rested and mama seal get some lunch.”

(All I can say is “PHEW!” Something stuck.)

Here’s our seal pup moving:


Seal Sitters –

Seal Sitters blog –

Leopard & Silkie –

Engineering Crazy Straws

Crazy Straws 1

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.

Crazy Straws 2

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.

Cray Straws 3

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.

Crazy Straws 4

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.”

Crazy Straws 5

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.

Learning to Code: Meilee’s First Scratch Project

The Unicorn Ghost
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


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

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.