Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Yenka: 3-D Simulation Software to Create Interactive Models in Science, Math, and Technology

I've been teaching physics this semester, and in my search for resources, I stumbled upon this incredible resource.  Yenka is some very powerful 3-D simulation software that allows you to model all sorts of topics related to science, technology, math, and computer programming.  For example, in the area of physics I'm teaching (light and optics), Yenka has some pre-built virtual labs that allow you or a student to manipulate  concave or convex lenses to see how the light rays travel through them and how near or far from the lens you must be for the picture to be clear and focused.   They also have models for the colours of light (it was developed by a Scottish firm, so the spellings are British rather than American), for fiber optics, for light refraction, microscopes and telescopes, and several others.  But they also have lots of other ones relating to electricity, sound, forces, and other physical concept, plus another whole load of models for chemistry.

Then there is math, which has over 200 models about numbers, geometry, measurements, and statistics.  In the technology section...well, I can't even understand what their description of things you can do mean, but apparently you can "Design and test analogue and digital electronic circuits, convert them to PCB layouts, and program PIC or PICAXE microcontrollers."  Whatever, it sounds like powerful stuff.  Finally, in computing, they have what is supposed to be a simple programming technique for manipulating 3-D animated character using flowcharts (although more sophisticated program require an upgrade to some other software they have).

And the REALLY good news is that all this powerful software is FREE--BUT, only for using at home.  For teachers to use the software at school, they must buy a personal or an institution license.  However, for teachers who want to play with it at home to try out some ideas, or for parents who want to supplement what their children are learning at school, it is fantastic.  Plus, it does say specifically that the free license is available to homeschoolers.  Yippee!

So it really is a wonderful resource for creating all sorts of different simulations and interactive virtual exercises in lots of areas of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education.  To download your FREE at-home license to try it out, visit the Yenka website.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Curriculum Resource: The Most Underrated President

Wow, it has been a week and a half packed with holidays and special activities--Valentines Day, the announcement of the winner of The Great Sea Slug Beauty Contest, The Great Backyard Bird Count (our best year ever in terms of number of different birds we spotted), Presidents Day, the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's orbit, and Mardi Gras (not to mention a sprinkling of snow in there).  Most of these included some science or history components along with cooking special dishes (Whiskey Shrimp and Apple Dowdy for Presidents Day and Chicken Bonne Femme and a new dish I invented, Mardi Slaw, for Fat Tuesday).  It's been a lot of fun, but a good bit of work to add to our normal homeschooling schedule.

But before we abandoned our Festive February events, I wanted to share an assignment I gave my son this week in regards to Presidents Day.  The Washington Post was having an online discussion with its readers about which presidents were the most underrated.  They eliminated from consideration nine presidents they considered to be the most frequently praised:  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.  Besides those nine, they asked, which presidents haven't gotten the amount of praise and respect that they deserve?

I found both the question itself and the online discussion to be really interesting.  For example, some argued that Lyndon Johnson's domestic achievements were remarkable--but does his mistakes in Vietnam outweigh the good he did in terms of civil rights?  Did Harry Truman's approval to use the atomic bomb on the Japanese people make him a courageous hero or a Western-centered murderer?  Was James Madison's sheparding of the US Constitution one of the most overlooked, but fundamentally important, contributions of all presidents?  Are we too focused on recent events and presidencies and forget the developments of the past?

I thougth this was a great discussion to be having on Presidents Day.  Plus, it has particular relevence in our family, since my brother spent the summer visiting all the presidential libraries and is writing a book on the question of presidential legacies and the role presidential libraries play in how we remember our former leaders (read more about it on his blog, Across the Country with the Presidents).

So I gave my son a Presidents Day assignment to write a persuasive essay (another skill we're working this year) about the former President that we as a country should appreaciate more.  We talked about the Washington Post discussion, we looked at Wikipedia's collection of ratings of US Presidents, then told him to write a polished essay without telling me who his selection was until I read it.

Meanwhile, I was trying to come up with my answer.  I would probably end up with James Madison, because I think the country would have fallen apart way before the Civil War had it not been for his work on skillfully crafting a Constitution that all the original states could live with; however, I am somewhat predisposed in favor of Madison for some personal reasons.   The Washington Post didn't have an actual vote, but gave the following list, based on the number of comments and recommendations of comments by other people:
1.  George H.W. Bush
2.  Lyndon Johnson
3.  Jimmy Carter
4.  Harry Truman
5.  Calvin Coolidge
6.  Barack Obama (I excluded him from our considerations--we were only doing former presidents)
7.  Gerald Ford
8.  James Polk
9.  Chester Arthur
10.Andrew Johnson
(To learn more about the arguments in favor of these presidents, read the Post's article here.)

Personally, I'm not sure about Calvin Coolidge and Andrew Johnson, and I have mixed feeling about James Polk (I think he only got this high on the list of underrated due to the song below by They Might Be Giants):

AND, of course, I thought James Madison should be on the list.

But, in general, those were the presidents who came to my mind for being underappreciated.

However, when I got the finished essay from my son, he had not chosen any of the presidents mentioned above.  Instead, he chose to write about......

James Buchanon

JAMES BUCHANON?   He of the pro-slavery Dred Scott decision and Kansas constitution?  The president that, in the Wikipedia presidential rating system, was rated as one of the top five WORST presidents by 15 out of the 18 polls, and the very worst president by four of them.   Well, at least he definitely falls into the unappreciated category....

But I loved my son's take on his presidency.  He reviewed his actions and talked about how bad they had been for the country.  But he summed it up by saying that his goal was "desparately delaying the war," and then concluded:
It was quite a good thing that he delayed the issue of secession until Lincoln, the right man for the job,was elected. Putting the issue into the hands of the right person was an invaluably beneficial act...
I really loved his perspective.  What a great way to view those presidencies (or other leaders, or even people or events in our own lives) that we consider to be "failures"--that they were placeholders, or part of the process of getting the right people and resources in place for our latter successes!  He gave me some great perspective on the entire issue, as well as writing quite a good essay.

I recommend this as a great assignment to give your students for Presidents Day.  It certainly made ours more thoughtful and meaningful.

Who would you choose as the most underrated US President?  Share your choices below in the comments section.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Curriculum Resource: Mardi Gras 2012

Laissez les bons temps rouler!  Or Happy Mardi Gras!  Of course, the entire Mardi Gras season began a month ago in New Orleans, but today is the biggest day of the entire period, culminating in the most prestigious parade, the appearance of the krewe of Rex, King of Carnival.

As homeschoolers, we are used to not only squeezing blood out of a stone, but the educational tidbits from the most anti-intellectual of experiences, and Mardi Gras is no exception.  And, actually, it turns out that many of the parades do have themes with educational possibilities.

So it is with the big Rex parade that happens today.  The theme of the 2012 procession is "Lore of the Ancient Americas," so many of the floats will depict myths and folk tales from a wide variety of Northern and Southern American native people.   In fact, the krewe of Rex has even created a document that explains the topic of each float, along with links to versions of the story or other information that will help give the facts related to the subject.  It's really quite a lovely list of different native American tales.  And I suppose the floats are a unique approach to storytelling.

So to see the explanation for each of the floats (should you be watching the parade), or just to read about some traditional legends, check out the 2012 Rex Parade Notes.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Curriculum Resource: The 50th Anniversary of Americans in Space

Today we can celebrate not only our Founding President and the President who led our nation through its greatest challenge, but also 50 years of Americans in space.  On February 20, 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the planet in his Friendship 7 space capsule (Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first person to orbit the Earth in his Volstok space craft the previous year).   Americans at the time were transfixed during Glenn's approximately four-hour flight, which would lead in just a few years to Americans being the first humans to walk on the moon.

NASA is marking the occasion with an online interactive educational resource on Friendship 7 and the Mercury Space Program.  It has lots of facts and multimedia materials to explore, including interactive views of the interiors of the space capsules, the rocket technology, components of the space suits, flight trajectories, etc.  It also includes video footage of various aspects.

Below is one item from that website. It is a 25 minute video NASA has produced on the 50th Anniversary of Friendship 7:

I think it is hard for our middle schoolers, for whom space travel is such a regular occurence that no one even follows it any more, to realize how revolutionary it seemed at the time.  So I would add to the official NASA videos a couple of great movies about the space program--The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 (which is one of my favorite movies ever).

Hmmm...perhaps after I fix a version of last year's Presidents Day meal, we need to settle down in front of a great space flick tonight....

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Great Backyard Bird Count

So many things to celebrate this weekend!  But I wanted to mention one that can be one of the most educational of all, which is The Great Backyard Bird Count.

The GBBC is an event sponsored every year over Presidents Day weekend by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society, and the Bird Studies of Canada.  For the Friday through Monday of that weekend, they ask people all over North America to count the largest number of birds of each species they see while walking, hiking, and birdwatching.  They compile them all into statewide and national lists to see how the bird populations seem to be doing in the U.S. and Canada.

The great thing about this project is that you don't need to be an accomplished birdwatcher to participate.  They have a lot of tools built into their website to help you learn about and to recognize the birds you are most likely to be seeing, based on your vicinity (zip code and/or habitat).  You input your information about where you are birdwatching, and they come up with lists of birds that are indigenous to that area.  You can click on specific birds to see a picture and to read more about them to decide if that is the bird you saw, if you aren't already familiar with the species.

If you are interested in going in more depth about birdwatching, they have a great resource on Building Skills that teaches you ways to identify birds more accurately.  They have an entire section on GBBC for Kids, which not only provides simple information and some puzzles and crafts, as well as some games that are not only kind of interesting to do, but is building their online bird identification software so it will be better at helping unfamiliar birders to correctly identify the birds they see.  Finally, it is a way to have your children assist with an international science data collection effort, and see how their contributions at a local level help build a national database.

We are not great at bird identification.  However, we try to do this regularly, and every year we learn to identify at least one or two more birds than we did the year before.  And here in the Triangle NC area, the weather has been glorious to be out with the birds.

You can still participate today and tomorrow (Sunday and Monday), so I encourage you and your middle schoolers to take a walk, or to watch your bird feeders for a sustained period, and become part of one of the largest citizen science activities in the country.  Of course, the resources are available year round, so they are good to know about whenever you have a question about birds.  But it is fun to contribute to a large group project like this.  You can even print out a certificate to demonstrate your participation, and may even win a prize given to randomly-selected birdwatchers.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Curriculum Resources: Presidents Day and Black History Month

Looking for a fun and educational way to celebrate Presidents Day this weekend?  Check out some new interactive educational video games on American history produced by WNET, the public broadcasting channel for New York City, geared specifically for middle school students.

Entitled Mission US, these FREE games allow students to see pivotal periods in American history through the eyes of a young person at the time.   In each chapter, the character has some tasks to perform, which cause him or her to interact with a number of other characters that provide contrasting viewpoints.  However, there are multiple pathways through the game.  What the character will experience will vary from game to game, based on the decisions made by the students directing the action.

The first game is entitled "For Crown or Colony?"  In this game, students play the role of a young printer's apprentice in Boston during the rising conflicts between British authorities and American revolutionaries.  The game provides the perspectives of people both for and against Independence, until the students are required to choose one side or the other.

The second mission is "Flight to Freedom."  This time, students play as Lucy, a 14-year-old slave in Kentucky, as she attempts to escape to Ohio.  Even if she makes it, there are plenty of challenges even in the supposedly "free" colonies.  This game presents the ethical dilemnas and viewpoints from all around (such as, is it OK to steal from struggling farmers as you travel along the Underground Railroad?)

While these two missions are the only ones completed right now, there are two more that will be released in 20123 and 2014.  Mission 3 covers the time of the transcontinental railroad and is entitled "The Race for the Golden Spike, while Mission 4, "The Sidewalks of New York," allows students to become muckraking journalists in early 20th Century New York.

While the first two games don't feature George Washington or Abraham Lincoln per se, they are great vehicles for a more nuanced exploration of their times than many curricular materials.  Mission 2 is also a great tie in with Black History month.  And there are some related games you can play, such as "Think Fast! About the Past," a timed historical knowledge game, and a music game.

Here are trailers for the first two missions:

The bottom line is, if your children enjoyed the "Liberty's Kids" PBS cartoon series on the American Revolution as much as my son did during his elementary school years, then you'll definitely want to check out Mission US.  And if they didn't, maybe this will do the trick of turning them on to US history.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy ValenSLIMES DAY 2012!

It's been a lovely Valentines Day this year.

We woke up to the announcement of the winner of the Great Sea Slug Beauty Contest, which just happened to be the nominee from my son--that is, Chromodoris kuniei!

Photography by Steve Childs used under Creative Commons license, via Healing Oceans Together.
Admission--The "Happy Valenslimes Day" was created by my son in honor of the aforementioned nudibranchs this year.

Then there was such a sweet Google Doodle in honor of Valentines Day:

The buzz in the blogosphere was over the scene at the end that showed two tuxedoed men as Valentines, but with our undersea orientation, we were more enraptured withe the spaceman and the octopus (I think it was supposed to be an alien, but we LOVE our cephapods):

Then tonight, my son and I fixed a special Valentines meal.  He made the dessert--sea slug-inspired chocolate truffles (do you think the whole sea slug thing has gone to our heads?)--and helped me make some homemade reddish tomato pasta.  I made some beef stroganoff to serve over it, along with sauteed asparagus and fresh red peppers (with olive and garlic antipasto to begin the meal).

All in all, perhaps not a traditional Valentines Day, but a lovely one.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

This Weekend Is the Last Chance to Join in the Sea Slug Lovefest!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my son's middle school environmental group, Healing Oceans Together, is running a FREE online contest entitled The Great Sea Slug Beauty Contest.  They are asking people to vote for which of eight finalists is the most beautiful sea slug--judging not only on its appearance, but also its cool features.  Click here to participate--it is anonymous and only takes a few minutes....ESPECIALLY if you are from one of these states:

  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • South Dakota
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming
Those are the only states that they haven't received any visits from, and they are really trying to get at least one vote from all 50 states (and we've got the District of Columbia, since that is where my father lives).  So if you can, please vote so they can get the most participation possible.  But the deadline is tomorrow, Sunday, February 12, so please act soon.

H2O also just put on two free educational workshops for the community about sea slugs.  About 68 people participated in the workshops, held at the libraries in Raleigh and Apex, NC.  In addition to scientific information about sea slugs and how people can help heal the oceans, the workshops featured making your own sea slug out of polymer clay or playdough (for the littler students), making sea slug valentines, playing games, and listening to sea slug stories.  It drew a diverse crowd, and it was great to see the teens working with the toddlers!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Curriculum Resource: The Life of Charles Dickens

Happy 200th Birthday to Charles Dickens!  Once again, it was Google who brought this to my attention, as it made him the subject of today's Google Doodle:

If you are looking for a short video on Dicken's life, here is a lovely little cartoon version from the BBC:


Monday, February 6, 2012

Book Review: Newbery 2012 Honors Winner A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd

I finally got to read this book, which I had requested from the library about a month ago, but the copies were all booked up until now.  And I can definitely get behind the Newbery Committee for honoring this book.  It was the book that my son's Mock Newbery Book Club chose as their nominee for the Newbery Winner, and I could see that as well.  It really is an extraordinary book.

It is a very unique take on an unfortunately all-too-common problem.  The protagonist is a young adolescent boy whose single mother is dealing with some kind of illness (I assumed it was cancer).  A monster appears to him at night to tell him stories, in exchange for which the boy is to tell him the truth.  However, as the book proceeds, the whole monster thing remains mysterious.  Is it a dream?  Is it the boy's imagination?  Is it his fears made manifest?  Is it real?  It captures that great quality of confusion that you have right when you wake from an intense dream and can't remember where you are and aren't sure what is real and what isn't.

In the meantime, the boy must deal with the challenges of his daytime life.  Those include a father who has remarried and moved abroad with his new family, school bullies, a perceived betrayal by a friend, and handling the overly-solicitious pity of his teachers.  Ness' portrayal of a young teen in these circumstances is very authentic.

The stories that the monster tells are very thought provoking.  You think they are taking you one place, but you end up in another.  The whole thing is quite unpredictable, which I love in a book.  So as you go along, you are wondering, Is this monster the boy's worst nightmare, or could it be his salvation?

You'll have to answer that question for yourself when you read it.

The excellent text is accompanied by some wonderful illustrations by Jim Kay.  They are more evocative and atmospheric than explaining what is going on, which is perfect for the tone of the book.

All in all, this is just a wonderful read.  It deals with some tough subjects, so it may not be appropriate for sensitive readers at the younger age range of the Newbery book audience.  It is an emotional book, so be prepared for that.  It may be a tough journey, but it's worth it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Curriculum Resource: Buddhism with Dharma Games

I recently found a cute little website when I was looking for things for my World Religion class.  Buddhism and computer games--two things you wouldn't necessarily put together.  But the site Dharma Games has a number of computer games, but all with Buddhist themes.

The games are mostly typical game formats--pinball, concentration, pacman-like--but are overlaid with Buddhist concepts and imagery.  So for most of them, you don't really have to know a lot about Buddhism to play them, nor do they really help you experience or work through Buddist principles or thinking.  But still, it is a fun and different way to get students to learn a little bit about Buddhism.

They have one called It's Meditation Time, which is a puzzle game where you have to get all the Buddhist monks to sit down in order to meditate.  But when one monk changes position, the others next all take the opposite position from before (so that the neighboring monks that were seated are now standing and vice versa).  It's a good puzzle, because I have no idea how you re going to get them all seated.  If you figure it out, let me know in the conments below.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Black History Month Curriculum Resource: Jazz with Nneena Freelon

As I stated in an earlier post, we are studying the Harlem Renaissance right now, which happens to coincide with Black History Month.  As part of our studies, this past weekend we went to hear Nneenna Freelon, a world-renowned comtemporary jazz singer.

It was a great experience, because while I think all music sounds better performed live, it may be particularly important for jazz performances.  We can talk about jazz and study jazz and even watch videos and listen to CDs about jazz, but that is still not the same as watching someone perform jazz.

And Ms. Freelon is, indeed, wonderful, as might be expected from someone who has been nominated for a Grammy award six separate times.

You can hear some samples of her songs on her website at:

However, one of the issues of teaching our children about jazz is the fact that the songs are unfamiliar to them, and they all just sound like "old music."  But at the conference, I found a great way to deal with that issue.

Nneena Freelon has an album entitled "Tales of Wonder," which is based on Stevie Wonder songs.   It includes jazz takes on such familiar Stevie Wonder songs as "Superstition" and "My Cheri Amour."  While these aren't timely hits, students are much more likely to have heard them than traditional jazz classics (we've been working on his mastery of Classic Rock artists while driving in the car).  But because he does know the original versions of these songs, it gives him a better feeling for jazz interpreations of songs.

So I recommend her songs in general for a modern singer with classic jazz roots.  But I have really found Tales of Wonder to be useful in helping my middle schooler understand jazz.