Monday, February 25, 2013

February Boardwalk

This year I thought we would take a year off skiing.  What with the trip to Australia at Christmas and Tristan's Minecraft club on Saturdays, and the dog rescue...I just didn't have the energy.  This weekend however it seemed that the stars aligned to make it happen.  We had no play rehearsals, great friends available to come, Minecraft cancelled (just this week), gorgeous weather and excited kids.

After a day of skiing, though the kids were exhausted.  Done.  Ready to curl up and play Minecraft, and write THE book! and the weekend was just beginning.  And it was so nice.  We sat around eating thick crusty slices of hot olive bread toast with cheese and dipping chocolate into our steaming coffees.  We laughed about learning to play Canasta.  We watched Oscar nominated films and walked out on the frozen lake to see if the fish were biting underneath all of that ice.

And on Sunday we ventured out to the boardwalk.  I love this boardwalk.  Even in the middle of winter it has its charm.  It was the first time I had visited it covered in snow.

OK, it was a little bleak.  I didn't enjoy it that much when it started sleeting.  But I did enjoy watching the boys have an adventure, sliding around, discovering trees eaten by beavers, beaver lodges, frozen swimming holes, and exploring under bridges and downed trees. And afterwards we were definitely ready to visit the bakery for more fresh bread and strawberry rhubarb pie.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lego Robotics

A couple of years ago I was running Lego League teams.  Claire wasn't really into it but I was blown away by the NXT micro controllers and by the fact that kids had the opportunity to make cool robots with 5 different sensors, not only vehicles but robotic animals which I thought Claire might like.  She did for a bit and her team made it to the state competition but overall...not so much.

But I still have my Lego League table, gobs of robotics lego, NXT micro controllers and sensors... and I thought it was time to dust it off and organize it.  Tristan is just about the right age to get into it.  The programming language is easy and I thought the time was right to see if I could get this going again.  Also the new generation of Lego micro controller (EV3) is due out around September and it is amazing. Expensive but amazing and did I say amazing?  (The current NXT's can and will be used for  a year or two and parts will be available until mid 2015 so we will continue with the NXT at this point.)

I have been thinking a lot how to best run a class of 9-10 year olds new to lego robotics.  Since I last did it, several great books have been written, online tutorials made and expert building instructions are all over the web.  I am reading everything I can get my hands on from those First Lego League pioneers who have nurtured and instructed great teams over the years and in the process made fantastic robots.

I think rather can competing in Lego League the first year, we will spend the year learning in depth the physics, building techniques, strategy and the programming language with one on one parent involvement.  I want the children to know enough, have enough skills by the end of the year to be confident that they can do the First Lego League challenges completely on their own going forward. Project based homeschooling has taught me the importance of making sure that children know enough before you abandon them on their projects! You want to ensure success AND that they have achieved it on their own.  I want everything explained slowly, in small bites and ensure full understanding of concepts.  I have two parents who are IT engineers who will be assisting in this.  I am hoping to start in a week or two.

In the mean time, it is all about robot wars!

The Mayan DIG!

This year, the theme of our archeological dig (we refer to it as The Dig) coming up in May is the Maya Civilization!  To that end I have been coming up with meaningful activities our kids will be doing in preparation for the Dig!

The Dig is a 4 day camp.  Geof Pursell, archaeologist and educator extraordinaire, comes over with a ton of artifacts sourced in museums.  He then digs an enormous hole and buries the real artifacts in such as way as to tell an amazing story about what has transpired throughout Mayan history.  The kids dig out the artifacts layer by layer using actual archeological techniques and try to piece together the story the site is telling.  They then make a museum with the pieces, play archaeology based board games, listen to stories and lectures and have a wonderful time.

Our first trip was to the Pennsylvania University where there is an interesting collection of Central American artifacts.  They were hosting the Maya 2012 Lords of Time exhibit which had a excellent sampling of the types of artifacts found in the tombs of Mayan kings, a wonderful display about how the Mayans calculated time and this fun machine that the children used to make their names in Mayan glyphs.

We will be visiting the Museum of Natural History with Geof before the dig starts.  Geof has a way of making everything you see meaningful.  He shows the children how to look at an artifact and piece together its story based on what it was found with, what it is made of and where was it found.  He has a way of making history come to life.  I fall in love with history and storytelling when I listen to him relate his vision to the children. He is mesmerizing.

Also my friend Will Lewis, a master carver, is carving a wooden block print of our T-shirt design which will be a Mayan glyph.  The children will also be creating their own print blocks (carving their own names in Mayan (in rubber, not wood).  I am also interested in doing something interesting about how the Mayans calculated their time using giant gears which we could cut out on the scroll saw.
...and then of course...some of the children asked if we could make a giant timeline as we did for the Greco/Roman Dig last year.  Oh...what to do? This is all very exciting!

Pet Talk

Last Sunday, Claire and her friend Marlin were invited to appear on Pet Talk, a television show of News Channel 12 in Connecticut.  Lauren Collier, who hosts the show loves animals and kindly offered to have the girls on to help Claire find foster families and homes for her rescue dogs.

In the green room

On set 
Getting mic'd up
Ready to go!
It went on air yesterday morning and I filmed it on my iPhone.  It is 12MB (the smallest I could make) so I apologize for the delay in uploading.


Recently a good friend of mine posted a TEDtalk about Scratch (a MIT platform for creative design projects using kid friendly code blocks). The thing that struck me about the talk was that code is going to be (or already is) a universal language for creative design for this generation. Children all over the world are going to be required to write a computer language, not just a foreign language.

Why am I not teaching code? (I don't mean me...but why aren't my kids learning code?)   Why don't I learn code?  It is so easy just to use interfaces that are already designed and easy to use...but by not teaching it and making it mainstream, we are driving our kids to simply be consumers of tech products rather than designers, makers, innovators and manifestors of ideas.  In that spirit yesterday, I started learning html and Tristan started Javascript.

This means I have to learn Javascript too to trouble shoot.  Eek. But it is not that bad...really!

We are doing this for free! at the Codecademy. You can pick any of the 7 streams of programming to go down and just start.  Lessons are short, fun, pretty easy (meaning...I can do it!) and they seem to be working.  Tristan does a bunch of them in a row and then he has to "teach" his poor, slow mother.

I want him to use what he is learning now.  He can connect with other beginning Javascript learners through Codecademy.  I was delighted to learn that Javascript is the computer language of servers, and even the language of Minecraft.  There is a new Minecraft mod that can be added to the game to allow players to use Javescript commands to automate construction tasks.

'Ultimately I think the Scriptcraft mod could be used to take building in Minecraft to a whole new level. With a full-blown language at the Player's disposal, it should be possible to create not just castles and forts but entire road networks and cities.' Most importantly of all, it not only pushes the boundary of Minecraft, it also provides a way to get kids who are already hooked on Minecraft to start learning JavaScript.
                                                                                           Markus Alexej Persson (creator of Minecraft)

Tristan's dream this year was to write a mod for Minecraft.  I thought it was a pie in the sky dream (it still is), however I feel we are taking one step forward towards that goal.   I feel that by exploring Scratch, Mindstorms lego microcroller programming (in his tech class), Game Design and Codecadamy he is getting the tools to use technology to create and make rather than be a consumer of it.

------- 2 weeks later:

I have been enjoying learning to code!  Today I started my first little game!  I switched to Javascript (even though I have been advised to learn a more secure language).  The problem is that I am finding coding more fun than writing blogs.

After two weeks, Tristan is not so keen to continue learning languages like this right now.  He is a little young and it is quite abstract at this point.  Instead, he is continuing to enjoy Minecraft and continually exploring how to expand his Minecraft repertoire.  We will come back to it when the time is right.

We also watched Minecraft: The Story of Mojang, an inspiring documentary about how Minecraft was created.  I highly recommend to anyone who has come across Minecraft, and especially to parents of Minecrafters.

I am looking into some more interesting coding resources for children and I will write a post about that a little further down the track.  If you have come across any good tech ideas and opportunities I would love to here about them too.