Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Maker Faire finds

This weekend was Maker Faire, the annual Mecca for inventors, tinkerers, crafters, and other propeller-heads from around the world. Our friend Tim O'Reilly, whose company runs the Faire, affectionately calls members of this community the "alpha-geeks."

While we've attended (and exhibited!) at the Faire before, the past couple of years my focus has been on educational technologies – this year, biology and robotics in particular.

These were my top finds:

3D cells from molding clay
My absolute favorite were these simple, beautiful cell models children could mold in minutes using standard Crayola ModelMagic molding clay. We invited the folks at GalaxyGoo come run a lesson at Sesat School!

Photo source: GalaxyGoo / Flickr
iPad microscope
Folks at the Fletcher Lab at UC Berkeley demonstrated CellScope, a cool iPad stand that turns the iPad into a graphically enticing, easy-to-use microscope capable of recording images and video. One of the few educational uses of tablets I've seen so far, that really make sense. The CellScope stands are not available commercially yet, but hopefully will soon.

Photo source: CellScope
Robot starter kit
Out of several robot construction kits, Vex and Makeblock looked best. Their robots are robust (we tested chucking one of the Vexes around a bit and managed to make no irreparable damage) and can be controlled both manually and programmatically. Vex also runs competitions for schools. We're going to start with Makeblock, but I'm thinking to get a Vex kit as well, for comparison.

Submarine drone
We've promised the children that our annual treasure hunt will eventually lead to real treasure. The problem is most undiscovered treasure is located at the bottom of the ocean in hard-to-access shipwrecks. One of the ways to get to them is by way of remote-controlled submarine. My dream was to build one when I was a child! The OpenRov underwater robot is a candidate solution. We met the founders of this Berkeley startup at last year's Maker Faire, and they are great. This year we stopped by their exhibit to discuss launching one of their submarines to explore the Big Sur coastal waters by way of a flying drone – an experiment that could lead us closer to the eventual dream of finding submerged treasure.

Here's a video of the OpenRov team sending their rover to explore a small shipwreck at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, CA:

Record-setting paper plane
E learned to fold standard paper airplanes around age four, perfected his folding skills with hours of origami, and has by now graduated to his own paper plane designs. One of his engineer-heroes is "Paper airplane guy" John Collins, who designed the Guinness Book of Records' furthest-flying paper airplane (it flew 226 feet 10 inches, or 69.13 meters - over half a football field!) John's exhibit at Maker Faire was so packed we could barely squeeze in, but when his colorful planes took flight they were visible far and wide. His New World Champion Paper Airplane Book has excellent illustrations, and also contains one of the clearest explanations of the physics of flight – a topic we've been learning about recently. Here's a video of the record-breaking flight:

P.S. While I was writing this post E drew a portrait of me:

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Light, mirrors, and the secret of Renaissance artists

Over the past three weeks the children have been learning about human phenomena: how we get information (and sometimes misinformation!) about the world through our senses. The second semester of the Exploratorium homeschool science program, this class is a follow-up to Tinkering from earlier in the spring. The program is run by Ken, teacher extraordinaire and Exploratorium staff member.

Today the focus was on vision, light, and mirrors. We started by exploring how mirrors reflect light, and learning to draw reflections with the help of a handheld mirror:

Then we looked at some very clever mirrors, where we could see everyone else except ourselves:

Ken's artist friend had created a mirror out of thousands of tiny pinheads:

Standing in front of a very large mirror, the children traced the rays of light that came together to create a reflection:

How come some things appear so huge and others so tiny on this big convex mirror?

The study of light, and tricks that can be played with it, dovetailed nicely with our work on drawing from life.

Also, the Renaissance artists were no strangers to the power of mirrors. In his interesting (and controversial) book Secret Knowledge, David Hockney argues the manipulation of light and reflections brought about the disruption in medieval art during the period we now call the Renaissance.

Techniques such as the camera obscura, which were used to produce life-like art, were a carefully guarded secret, thinks Hockney. The BBC made a TV series about it:

In the evening, E and C decided to try their hands - literally! - and practice drawing them from life:

Leonardo Da Vinci: Study of Hands (circa 1474). Source: Wikipedia

Sunday, May 11, 2014

More gardening!

It's springtime and our edible garden is growing! The children have been hard at work planting, weeding, building trellises, and composting with their gardening teacher Shauna. I asked Shauna to write a little bit about the things they have focused on this past two weeks. Here's what she wrote:

Observation Skills: Farmers and Gardeners use their sharp observational skills to watch their plants and land and learn from them.  

To practice this we first played a game called Sharp Eyes.  In this game we try to memorize how someone looks, or how they are standing, and then turn around while they change three subtle things about their appearance (cross their arms, roll up a sleeve, untie a shoe etc.) 

We then turn back around and see if we can spot all three differences.  Next, we transfer this skill to the garden and search for at least three things that have recently changed.  We then share out our changes and try to determine why it changed and predict how things might change for next week.

Another game we played is called Everyone Needs a Rock.  We each found a rock and explored it with four senses (look, feel, smell, and sound) and then imagined we were teeny tiny people living on this rock as our planet.  We found places to put a lookout tower, valleys to collect rainwater, places with dirt to grow food, and finally discussed where we would build a home (thinking about resources and habitats).  We then closed our eyes and tried to identify our own rocks using only the sense of touch.

6 Plant Part Review:  We practiced our 6 Plant Part Song and motions we learned in our first lesson to review Roots, Stem, Leaves, Flowers, Fruits and Seeds.

Seeds/Pea Pods: Last week we focused on seeds.  We looked closer at pea pods today.  We dissected, tasted, compared and contrasted 3 different kinds of peas: Snow, Sugar Snap and English Shelling Peas.  

Worm Bin: We fed our uneaten pea pod shells and briefly discussed how worms decompose food and what worm castings are.

Tendrils: We then directed our attention to the growing peas in the garden.  We talked about tendrils and their purpose and then took some quiet time to draw the garden including the peas.  Finally, there are new (brown) pieces of twine on the pea trellises that we will watch to see if any pea tendrils wrap around by next week.

Friday, May 9, 2014


We read an adaptation of The Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy and I was very impressed at how well the children were able to grasp the themes about values and priorities. The three questions are:

1. When is the best time to do each thing?
2. Who are the most important people to work with?
3. What is the most important thing to do at all times?

We talked about why the little boy went back into the forest to rescue the baby panda without the mother panda asking him to rescue her child. These were some big themes that can be revisited for the rest of the semester.

Next I asked the children to explain to me what happened in their storyboards from the film they saw earlier this week at the SF film festival, The Dam Keeper. I practiced interviewing them about the storyline of the film, and then I filmed our interview.

After talking about the storyline of The Dam Keeper, we talked about characters in The Three Questions and characters in The Dam Keeper. The children each chose a favorite character from the film and made a clay figure of that character. One of the kids chose a horse (or possibly a pegasus unicorn) from the film, and one chose a pig. They both practiced writing the date on which they saw the film. We talked about what some of the character traits were for these characters and how the other characters related to them. According to one of the children the pig was nice and almost all of the other animals were mean to him.

I look forward to developing more story recalling skills with the children and learning to use money, addition and subtraction for selling cookies at Zack’s CafĂ© next week!