Archive for ‘Project-based Homeschooling’

March 19, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Timeline of My Son’s Star Wars Project

I wrote about Star Wars and some of my son’s projects for my column, but here I will explain how his interest in Star Wars has evolved. It’s a good example of project-based homeschooling, and if you have a child who has an interest but doesn’t seem to do much with it, this may be of interest to you. Because Star Wars has been a long-term interest for my eight-year-old, but it didn’t produce anything that might look like a real project until recently. In fact, I doubt my son considers that he has a “Star Wars project” going on right now — I am the one who has noticed his interest and tied all these “dabblings” into a neat bundle.

It was well over a year ago that my husband decided it was time that we watch the original Star Wars trilogy together. I was a little hesitant because my boys were young, and the movies are violent (though no bloodshed). Anyway, I was no match for my husband’s enthusiasm, so we went ahead and watched them. My boys enjoyed them. The eight-year-old especially liked them (he was seven at the time) because he could understand them better.

It was great fun watching them again, talking about the storyline, and showing my son yet another example of how stories have to have conflict in order to make them interesting. I think Star Wars has great life lessons, and the black and white good vs. evil in this sci-fi adventure is probably easier for young children to understand because there are no shades of gray! Teaching storytelling, the elements of a story, and what makes something an “action-adventure” gives this an educational twist that Mama likes. But I digress…

Since we own the DVD set, it also comes with the documentary of how the movies were made. My eight-year-old (then seven) enjoyed watching that too, especially the parts about how they did the special effects. He loved seeing the small models of the ships! He said he thought he could make something like that.

(Read my column about how watching the difficulties George Lucas had with making the film has influenced my son and helped his perfectionist tendencies!)

It was shortly after watching the movies and documentary that my son made a cardboard model of Darth Vadar’s ship. Although he told me the center part would be a cube shape because making a sphere out of cardboard was too hard.

Then, nothing else happened with his interest in Star Wars for at least a year. (Well, except studying the Star Wars website, which I’ll explain below.) Star Wars is part of our culture, so it would come up sometimes, and my son was glad he understood the allusions to the story. We may have checked out one or two Star Wars books from the library. I’m not sure. But he remained interested in Star Wars. He even got some Lego kits and small Star Wars toys for gifts, which he enjoyed.

Sometime this past year my husband started watching Clone Wars with the boys on Netflix. At first it was a once-in-awhile thing, but now we are all watching it regularly. It’s been pretty fun too, and it continues to fuel my son’s interest in the whole Star Wars saga.

At some point before we started watching Clone Wars, though, my son wanted to look up something about Star Wars online. This is when we discovered the official Star Wars website. It’s a great site with lots of pictures, and with my son’s growing reading skills, he has been able to navigate it pretty easily. He has perused it so much that he noticed when they made big changes to the website’s structure too.

Over the course of months, my son studied this site. He would always ask me if he could look something up on it, and then he might spend time perusing it. He never spent an excessive amount of time on it at one time, so I let him spend as much time as he wanted on it. No, I didn’t consider this part of his screen time. I considered it time well spent as he was learning how to do research on his own, and he was immersing himself in his topic of choice — something that is essential to learning and that shouldn’t be rushed.

I kept wondering if he would ever build a model of something, draw something or do anything else that would look more like a project, but I never said anything. I knew he would have to do this on his own, if he wanted to. I knew if Stars Wars was a deep interest of his, he would keep going with it. If not, then nothing else would happen. Either of those was okay with me. But I know this kid is a builder, so I kept expecting a building project to emerge.

Later, I realized that all last fall he was in a pottery class, and I bet that fulfilled his need to build. After the class ended, and during the holidays, he became interested in constructing paper dinosaurs, and at the end of that project, his Star Wars interest manifested. He constructed his own paper Jabba the Hut. (Read more about that in Project-based Homeschooling: Paper Dinosaurs + 1.) When he showed that to me, I secretly jumped for joy.

Over the holidays, at my son’s request, we watched the Star Wars trilogy again. It had been a good year since we had last watched it, and he had been asking to watch them again for a while. He specifically wanted to watch the documentary about the making of Stars Wars again. This time, my son paid the most attention to the part in the documentary about how they constructed the puppet for Jabba the Hut, and how puppeteers maneuvered the huge puppet.

It wasn’t long after this that my son came up with his idea to make a Jabba the Hut puppet. He worked on this slowly at different times, which is a little different from his usual spend-all-day-until-it’s-done obsessive manner. He still hasn’t finished it. He’s stuck wondering how to complete the back of it. He says he wants to finish it, and I have offered my help and also to forgo our morning lessons to give him more time, but he always turns me down. I think he’s frustrated by it, but I think he’ll figure it out eventually. Or maybe it won’t. That’s okay too because this is his work and not required work.

Jabba the Hut puppet. He attached the arms, eyes, and tongue to sticks so that they would be moveable parts. He still wants to put a back on it and add green dots.

He also made a clay Jabba the Hut. He told me it was so much easier than the puppet, and I was like, “Well, yeah!”

Clay Jabba.

His latest creation is the Republic Attack Gunship. He’s not finished with it either. Again, he’s having a bit of trouble figuring out how to make some parts out of cardboard, and he’s resisting my input. That’s okay. It’s just my job to remind him of his work and ask if he’d like to work on it again.

Republic Attack Gunship –  unfinished.

I added a little to his interest in Star Wars by buying my boys the Brainquest workbooks for their formal homeschool lessons. I liked what these covered, and I thought if it makes learning a little more fun for my boys, great. I hoped, however, that I wouldn’t ruin my son’s interest in Star Wars by turning it into work. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened. My eight-year-old actually seems to enjoy his reading practice in these books because it tells information about the characters and the plot lines in episodes I, II and III (which he hasn’t seen yet). Whenever a character appears in the Kindergarten level books that my five-year-old is using, and they don’t know the name of the character, my eight-year-old offers to look it up for his brother. So the books have actually seemed to encourage more interest instead of taking away, and I’m glad.

In addition, we are currently reading a fun spin-off series by Jeffrey Brown. The first one is titled Jedi Academy. These books are geared toward middle schoolers, but my eight-year-old loves them. He got the first one as a gift, and we’re buying the others as they come out.

I have been very hands-off this project, and I think it’s so cool that my son has had these ideas and implemented them all on his own. I help only when he asks. It definitely shows that my son is growing up because I remember a time I was “silently feeding” his interests, or giving more suggestions. I have a feeling his interest in Star Wars will continue, though it may be a kind of project where he dabbles in it here and there. I will continue to be a good PBH Mama by recording his work and finding all the connections!

March 17, 2015

Star Wars

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal in February 2015.

Science fiction fans have been all abuzz about the new Star Wars movies, the first of which will be released this coming December. Now that my eight-year-old has been well informed about Star Wars, he’s pretty excited too. We all are. My husband and I have always loved Star Wars, and my five-year-old likes it too, although he’s not quite as crazy about it as his older brother.

Long before we had children, I gave my husband the DVD set of the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V and VI). He couldn’t wait to watch them with our boys, and though I was reluctant to have them watch so young, I couldn’t hold back the force (pun intended) of an excited science-fiction geek like my husband.

We haven’t watched the first three episodes with the boys – not real excited about that since they weren’t very good, but we have been watching some of Clone Wars, which is supposed to fill us in on the story before episode three. These animated, made-for-television shows are entertaining, and the animation is beautiful. Adults and kids can enjoy it, but they can be violent, so I’d used discretion for young children.

The first time we watched the original trilogy, my boys loved it, and my eldest boy even enjoyed watching the documentary (included in the DVD set) about the making of the movie. He didn’t care so much about the history of George Lucas and how he got into the movie-making business, but his eyes lit up when it got to the part about how they did the special effects. When he saw the small models of the ships that they filmed against a blue screen for the space battle scenes, he said, “Maybe I could make something like that.” Not long after, he made a simple model of Darth Vader’s ship out of recycled cereal boxes.

I, however, loved the story of George Lucas and all the difficulties he had filming Star Wars. Watching the documentary, he struck me as a kind of perfectionist, but obviously that paid off. I didn’t know that Lucas suffered from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized at one point. I didn’t know that all the actors in the movie wondered what in the heck they were filming. Or the problems they had with the robots not working, terrible weather conditions, going over budget and running out of time to film. Everyone was prepared for the movie to be a bust.

The actors were not privy to any of the special effects that would be added later in post-production. For example, Lucas did not find the person who would do the voice for Darth Vadar until late in the movie-making process, so the actors did not hear the voice of James Earl Jones or the sinister breath of Darth Vadar. Instead, they heard the voice of the actor who was in the costume – he had a Scottish accent.

On the first days of filming The Empire Strikes Back, horrible storms and avalanches made filming on location in Norway almost impossible. The director, Irvin Kershner, did not want to get behind schedule, so he improvised. Mark Hammill had the pleasure of going out into the snow right outside the hotel, and they filmed from a doorway in the hotel.

I like it when we come across stories like this because it’s a good lesson for my son to learn. He can get frustrated when he’s trying to make something, and it’s not turning out the way he envisioned it. Sometimes he wants to give up, but I encourage him to take a break and come back to it later or think of something else he might try.

When I’m lucky enough to be watching a documentary with my son about George Lucas and all the problems he had making Star Wars, I say, “See? He really had a hard time, didn’t he? But he had to keep working on it because a lot of people were counting on him. He didn’t give up.” I can see that the difficulty of making Stars Wars and similar stories like this have influenced my son, and now he says things like “you just have to keep trying” and “you have to be patient.”

My son spent so much time last fall studying the Star Wars online encyclopedia that I wondered if that would lead to any other Star Wars type project. Finally this winter, he decided to make some models of Jabba the Hut. He’s created paper Jabbas, a clay Jabba, and he’s been slowly working on a moveable Jabba puppet, made out of several materials: part of a plastic bottle, wire, pipe cleaner, popsicle sticks, fabric and more. It’s almost finished, and I can’t wait to see the final version.

I’m not sure how much longer my son is going to be crazy about Star Wars, but I have a feeling this will last a long time, especially considering how my husband and I continue to enjoy Star Wars well into adulthood. And when the new movies come out, we are going to keep our fingers crossed that they are going to be awesome.

Stay tuned…In my next post I’m going to break down exactly how my son’s interest in Star Wars has played out as an example of project-based homeschooling.

February 26, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Paper Dinosaurs + 1

If you read my mid-year update, you might remember how I wondered why my eight-year-old didn’t build as much as he usually does last fall. Now I think that is because he was in a pottery class and otherwise occupied with things that satisfied his need to build. Once that class ended, and the holidays came, his building instinct came back. And it started with paper dinosaurs.

I am notorious for buying lots of cheap books at library book sales. One of my boys saw this book and wanted me to buy it, but it stayed un-opened on our shelf for a long time. This doesn’t make me want to “declutter.” I am a hoarder of books and educational materials because I know that any day, my boys might find something interesting that they didn’t find interesting the day before. I will only get rid of this kind of “clutter” once they are way too old for the items. Doing this has yielded some good surprises, such as these paper dinosaurs.

Over the holidays, my eight-year-old found the book, and he thought he might make one of the paper dinosaurs. I showed him how to do the first one, which was the easiest one in the book. The dinosaurs near the back of the book were NOT easy to make, and I didn’t have the patience for those. But my little builder did. For days, he obsessed about making these paper dinosaurs, and now we have a whole box full of them sitting on our floor with no place to put them. (This is clutter I would love dispense with, but since it still means a lot to my son, I don’t make him throw his creations away. A small price to pay for fostering creativity.)

I am always amazed to see how patient my son is when he’s trying to figure out how to make something. (He’s the same way with intricate Lego kits.) He will spend all day, and when I say all day, I mean all his free time during the day trying to finish whatever it is he puts his mind to. For days, he worked on these dinosaurs, and when he finally figured out how to make them without much trouble, and he amassed a good supply of them, he stopped making them.

+1 Project Element

But before he did that, he came up with one non-dinosaur paper creature of his own design. He simply tweaked one of the dinosaur designs to make a paper Jabba the Hut. If you read my mid-year report, you might also remember how I said his greatest interest last fall was Star Wars, though it didn’t lead to building any models. I had hoped it would, and this paper Jabba was his first representation of his interest in Star Wars since the fall. (And he made several paper Jabbas in all.) I was really excited to see it since I had wondered if his interest in Star Wars would go deeper.

I didn’t do a very good job of getting the paper Jabbas’ tails in the photos, but they each have one.

Since then, he’s done more Star Wars projects, and I’ll fill you in on that in my next column, which is all about his Star Wars project.

February 18, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Sketching at the Botanical Garden

When my eight-year-old went to pottery class, I drove my five-year-old ten minutes down the road from the studio to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, which is probably my favorite place on this earth (and I’ve been a lot of places). I used to go there 2-3 times a week when I first moved to Georgia. I didn’t know many people, and for me, walking on the beautiful, wooded trails or sitting by a stream was like visiting with a friend.

Now that I have children, I don’t get to go there as much as I would like to, but I am happy that we have taken my boys hiking there several times, and my eight-year-old has even taken summer camps there. Sometimes my five-year-old and I took advantage of these times by walking on the trails while waiting for older brother.

I consider Fridays “art days,” and we usually don’t do our other lessons on these days. Luckily, pottery class happened to be on Fridays last fall, so while older brother took that class, I took my five-year-old to the botanical garden for our “art.” I didn’t do formal art lessons though. I decided to just take our sketchbooks and see what would happen.

I am not an artist and until now, I have never put any effort into drawing or painting because it hasn’t been a huge interest of mine. The main reason I’m giving it a go now is because my five-year-old LOVES to draw. He is always coloring or drawing a picture, and I have stacks and stacks of his work. I hang some of it up on the wall above my desk, and other artwork is filling our stairway. As another way of trying to support his work, I got all of us a sketchbook, and occasionally I try to use it. I’m not very good except, maybe, at drawing plants. So that’s what I usually draw. I find it’s a very relaxing exercise too, which is beneficial to me. My goal is to try to make it a weekly practice, although I don’t always get to it that often. (You can read more about how and why I started a sketchbook habit in this post.)

My five-year-old is not very confident at trying to draw new things by himself. He likes to draw “storms” or trees, and loves to use stencils. Usually he colors pictures from a coloring book or he has me draw something for him that he can color. But he has also created some really interesting artwork. Some of it is highly detailed too. Maybe you could call it “doodle art” or abstract art. You can see a slideshow of that on this post. I let him create art however he wants to do it, but I hope as we continue to explore art and drawing together, he will try new things.

Sometimes my five-year-old wasn’t into drawing at the botanical garden, but he almost always wanted to get a snack at the small cafe, and that was okay. (I didn’t mind getting a coffee.) After that, I would pull out our sketchbooks or whatever I brought. He rarely wanted to walk around the botanical gardens at this time, which was okay since it was cold outside, and I had never really sat and lingered in their visitor’s center before. This was definitely a huge treat for myself as well, and I already miss going! (Yes, I know we could go any day just for fun, but that is easier said than done.)

One day was particularly special. It was the day that he wanted to bring his camera, so on that day, we not only enjoyed a leisurely snack and drawing in our sketchbooks, he used his camera to document our workspace and everything around us. He even took his very first video, which turned out to be hilarious (imagine a five-year-old swinging the camera around and talking to his mother at the same time).  It is a video that I will always treasure, and I think he’ll enjoy watching it when he grows up.

Many of his photographs were blurry, but a few were great, I thought, especially since we were sitting in some wonderful light. Below are his photographs. I asked him if he wanted to walk around to take photos, but he didn’t want to do that. He took all of these from his chair. Above are a few snapshots I got with my phone so that you can see how serious he was about his drawing and picture-taking. He didn’t want me to take photos of him, so I had to be quite sly about it! That was necessary because I never want to forget this day. I wish every homeschooling day could be like this one.

February 16, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Pottery Class Update

I’ve written extensively about my eight-year-old’s interest in working with clay and his pottery classes. I thought I would update you with some of his latest work from his pottery class this past fall. It was an eight-week class that was extended for an additional three weeks. He had a different instructor this time, which I think was a positive experience because he learned new and different techniques. He learned hand-building and wheel techniques.

I don’t have photographs of everything he made. Here are just a few items, including my favorite sculpture: his two-headed chameleon. What impressed me about this work is that he didn’t copy what the teacher was making — he came up with his own idea. (He told me he changed his mind a few times before he settled on a chameleon.) And then he sculpted it from memory! At home he will usually look up a photo of an animal to draw or sculpt, but in the class, he didn’t have access to the Internet, so he did this from his own knowledge of what chameleons look like. I am not sure I could have done that!

He told me that he sculpted one head, but then at the last minute, he thought, “Maybe I’ll do two heads.” Okay, then! What an imagination! I think it turned out fantastic.

By the way, these photographs were taken with my phone. In my next post, I’ll tell you what my five-year-old and I did while the eight-year-old was in class. :)

 

I love the final product.

Here you can see a few pieces that were made on a potter’s wheel. The tall one on the left was made by a method of stacking more than one pot thrown on the wheel. He also learned about raku firing, which is a Japanese way of firing pottery.  I learned that raku firing does not make a pot safe to eat out of! The two-headed chameleon and the small bowl in the back right of this photo were raku fired. The raku firing can give a pot a metallic look, which can be beautiful.

I especially like that they make him clean up!

He opted to take a break from pottery this spring, but he says he wants to take a summer camp at the pottery studio. Since this is his project and interest, we’ll support whatever he wants to do (as long as we can afford it). I hope he sticks to it, but only the future will tell!

February 9, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Growing Mushrooms Update

This is an update to my previous post: Project-based Homeschooling: A Mushroom Project Teaches Mama When to Let Go. That’s a very good post to read if you are having trouble with what seems like unfinished projects or don’t feel your child is going as deep as they can into a project. In it, I explain how my son wanted to grow mushrooms, and we tried a variety of experiments, but we never accomplished his goal. However, that was okay because he was satisfied.

But fast forward to last October when we went to the Makers Faire in Decatur, Georgia. One of the vendors at the fair was 5th Kingdom. 5th Kingdom is a mushroom farm in Atlanta, Georgia, and you should check out their website because I think their business is so cool. I think you can even order some of their products online, but I’m not sure about that. Send an inquiry, if you are interested.

Anyway, when my son saw they had mushroom growing kits, his interest in growing mushrooms came back instantly. Their kits were not expensive, so we bought one of their shittake mushroom kits for him. We all had great fun growing these mushrooms and then cooking with them. It only took about ten days for the mushrooms to grow to maturity, and all we had to do was mist the block while being careful not to spray the mushrooms.

This is the shiitake mushroom growing block right after taking it out of the bag. We had to keep it in the indirect light and elevated so that it wouldn’t sit in the water.

a few days later

ready to harvest :)

Since my sons are picky eaters, they wouldn’t try one, but my husband and I enjoyed them over pasta.

So the eight-year-old got his wish: he grew mushrooms. :)

 

November 24, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: Rube Goldberg Machine

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on November 19, 2014.

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A Rube Goldberg machine is a complicated machine that performs a simple task. Two years ago, I found a video of a very enthusiast little boy who made a Rube Goldberg machine and posted it online. I loved it so much, I shared it on my blog. My son and I watched it several times, and it never failed to delight us. Audri’s excitement is infectious.

At the time I thought my son would probably like making one himself, but he was only six-years-old, and I didn’t say anything. If it were my idea and not his, it would surely fall flat. Besides that, I wasn’t sure I could even make one – they seem complicated!

Fast forward to late last week when my five-year-old wanted to show me what he made. I went into the living room to find that he had set up several items, and he showed me how a ball would go from one item to another and knock them over. Nothing was actually attached to each other, so I knew it wouldn’t work. He was just pretending and walking the ball through the course.

After he demonstrated this to his brother and me a couple of times, I told him he might want to watch Audri’s video. My eight-year-old could remember the enthusiastic little boy and that machine, but my five-year-old did not. So I found the video, and they both watched it several times. It was just as exciting as the first time we saw it.

After that, my eight-year-old said he wanted to make a real Rube Goldberg machine. I said okay, and we dedicated this past weekend to making the contraption. I did my best to let my son make all the decisions. I kept my mouth shut even if I knew he would fail.

And fail he did. His first idea was to use his scribble bot (a lightweight robot that moves some pens around on a piece of paper) to knock a heavy ball off a table, and that was supposed to knock a bottle of water over and into a funnel. The funnel was attached to a pipe and the water was supposed to go through the pipe and eventually come out where a pinwheel (which was spinning because a fan was blowing on it) would carry that water over into a bowl.

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As you can imagine, there was a lot wrong with this machine, but my only request was that he do it in the kitchen where I knew the water wouldn’t hurt the floor.

There’s so much to be learned from failing, and my son was having fun. He was thinking, problem solving, and trying things out. It didn’t take him long to see that nothing quite worked right and using water wasn’t a good idea.

My husband suggested he use a ball and gravity, and my son agreed. At this point my son also wanted to look up some other videos of Rube Goldberg machines to get ideas, so we spent some time doing that.

While watching the videos, I told him to think about what those machines used that we also had on hand. We don’t have pulleys or dominoes or large equipment, but we do have toy tracks, lots of balls, blocks, pieces of wood, string, popsicle sticks and other small items. I suggested that we take all these materials upstairs to our big room and look at them and see if it inspired anything.

At this point, it was getting close to lunch, and my son’s patience was waning. He sat in the room and fumbled around, not accomplishing anything. As he gets older, he is getting more patient and realizes that it takes time to build things, but that doesn’t stop him from getting frustrated or fussy. He wanted more of my help, but I knew at this point I’d just be taking over, if I did that. Instead, we opted to have lunch and try again the next morning.

The next day after breakfast, we were both fresh and ready to build this machine. I reminded my son that using gravity – starting from a high point – would help a ball gain momentum, and I reminded him that whatever we put into motion had to hit something else and put it into motion. I reminded him how in the videos we watched, sometimes a ball would pull a string, which would release another ball, etc.

I got him started by putting a spiral racetrack up on a box and connecting that to a ramp. The little car hit a ball at the end of the track and sent it down a ramp.

That was enough to get my son’s own ideas going. By now I had more ideas of my own, and I think I could help set up a course that would have gone clear across the room. But I kept my mouth shut and let my son do his own thing. (That was so hard to do!)

It took a long time to set up his last three steps – the ball hit another ball tied to a string. That string pulled away a popsicle stick and released another ball down a slide. That ball hits another ball that then rolls across the floor to hit and ring a bell.

It’s not a long, complicated machine that you might find if you search for Rube Goldberg machines on YouTube, but it’s my eight-year-old’s first Rube Goldberg Machine. After much trial and error, he finally got it to work, and during the process I heard him say, “If it doesn’t work, just try again.” Yes! He may be happy with his machine, but I’m happy about what he’s learning through this whole process.

Here’s a video of his final machine. All pics & video taken with my new smart phone. ;)

October 15, 2014

a few small things

I think the last few months have surely been the busiest of my life. Fortunately, I love everything I’m doing, or I would be a little more batty than I am right now.

First, I’m happy to tell you that the fall issue of home / school / life magazine was released yesterday, and I think it’s excellent. Of course, I’m biased, but I’ve heard from a few other people who aren’t biased, and they think so too, and that makes me happy. I wish I could take credit for the wonderfulness of this issue, but my editor-in-chief did most of the magic with two fabulous articles — one is about the 10 best cities in the U.S. to homeschool in. She set certain criteria, did tons of research, compiled it together and scrutinized the data to come up with this list. Though we’re not planning to move, I now have some town envy for sure! She also wrote a great piece about asking yourself important questions that will be helpful to you as you enter and navigate this homeschool journey. I’m pulling out my journal one night with that one!

I also love all the columns in this issue, especially Amy Hood’s tips on visiting an art museum with kids and Patricia Zaballos’ letter to her beginning-to-homeschool self. She sure knows how to comfort the frazzled homeschooling mom!

As for me, I wrote an article about how to become a better family photographer. If you’re a novice behind the lens, you may enjoy it! And something about writing this feature stirred up photography in my life (before-hand I had pretty much put it to rest for awhile) because suddenly I found myself with three photography clients. What fun it was to take photographs beyond the family snapshots I had been taking! You can see my work on my photography website.

And this brings me to my next piece of news: I started a Facebook page for my photography. It will probably remain mostly personal work, which is what I intended my photo website to be, but I also wanted a way to connect more easily with my clients and share their photos. If you are interested, I’d love for you to follow me there.

Between all this busy-ness, I have not neglected my homeschooling duties, and my eight-year-old has been delving into some new interests. I already told you about our adventures with tardigrades. We also recently had the opportunity to visit a Makers Faire near Atlanta, and I wanted to go to that because I knew there would be a lot of robotics groups there showing off their latest creations. That’s because my eight-year-old has been interested in robots lately! I wish it were easier to support this interest faster, but since good robotics kits aren’t cheap, he’s going to have to wait a little while for his wish to come true on this one. Anyway, I’ll be sure to write about an easy scribble bot we assembled with a kit from the faire, and I also have a surprise continuation of a project that I thought was finished: growing mushrooms. You can read about part 1 here, and I’ll fill you in on part 2 soon. (Of course, if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you already know all this.)

I’ve been trying to support my five-year-old a little more with his drawing interest by displaying his work and also creating a corner in his room with art supplies and space to work! I’ll write about that, eventually.

Meanwhile, I’m getting ready for out-of-town guests. (I told you I’ve been busy, right?) So if you don’t hear from me for awhile, that’s why.

I hope you are having a wonderful fall season! Please write me and tell me what you’ve been up to.

October 10, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: Tardigrades

photo courtesy of Don Loarie via flickr creative commons https://flic.kr/p/kbHNe3

photo courtesy of Don Loarie via https://flic.kr/p/kbHNe3 This image is the closest to what we saw through our microscope.

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, October 8, 2014.

My family and I have been enjoying watching the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which is a documentary series that explains the principles upon which science is based. It’s a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. It uses storytelling and special effects such as Sagan did in the first series, but it’s all updated, and it’s a beautiful show.

In the second episode my family learned about tardigrades, and my eight-year-old became very excited. Tardigrades, or “water bears,” have to be one of the most amazing creatures on earth, and they are everywhere, but my family had no knowledge of them until now. This is because they are only .5mm – 1.2mm in length. They are big enough to see under a low-power microscope, but not big enough to notice when we’re walking through the woods on one of our hikes.

What is amazing about tardigrades is that they can live in conditions that would kill most other living creatures on earth. They can live in freezing temperatures (just above absolute zero) or in boiling water. They can withstand pressures that are far greater than that of the deepest trenches in the ocean. They can go up to ten years without food or water, and they have survived the vacuum of outer space. Because of these abilities, they have survived all five of Earth’s mass extinctions.

Their secret is cryptobiosis, which slows down the tardigrade’s metabolic processes. Without water, according to wired.com, “it can dehydrate to 3 percent of its normal water content in what is called desiccation, becoming a husk of its former self.” When you add water, they come back to life.

See why we were amazed to learn about these tiny creatures? My eight-year-old looked them up online, so we were able to view some photos and film taken of them under high-powered microscopes. We read more about them, and we also learned that it’s easy to find tardigrades in our backyard, so my son wanted to do that too.

We learned in Cosmos that they live in moss or lichen, but according to the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College (SERC), tardigrades can be found almost everywhere. The center also said there are over 900 described species (though I have read over 1,500 species on another site), and they have been found in the mountains, ocean, rain forests and the Antarctic. That site also mentions that “Live tardigrades have been regenerated from dried moss kept in a museum for over 100 years!”

First my son wanted to gather some moss in the backyard, which we did, and we looked at it under our microscope – no tardigrades. So then he wanted to look up “what is the best kind of moss to find tardigrades in.” We tried that and found something more helpful – complete instructions on how to find and care for tardigrades.

We learned that we would probably have a better chance of finding tardigrades in lichen and that once you get a sample, you need to soak it in distilled or rain water for several hours or overnight. My son gathered some moss and two small containers of lichen and let it soak in rainwater for 24 hours.

The next day my eight-year-old wanted to look at the moss water first. You’re supposed to squeeze out the moss and then put the water in a shallow dish such as a petri dish and then spend about 15 minutes looking at it under the microscope.

We found nothing in the water with the moss, but when we looked at the water with the lichen, we found some tardigrades almost immediately.

We were surprised to see that they are translucent. What we saw was a reddish outline around their body. We could make out their eight legs, but we couldn’t see the claws. We also saw their tubular mouth. My son said they looked like little, chubby caterpillars to him.

We also found all sorts of other wiggly things in there too! We haven’t identified those other creatures yet, but I think one is a nematode, which looks like a worm, and tardigrades prey on them.

I left the microscope and the tardigrades on our table so that my son can observe them for a few days before we release them back into the yard. My son is fascinated with the microscopic life in this tiny dish, and now he says he wants to learn more about bacteria. You never know where this might lead.

August 16, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: Angry Birds – You Never Know

I don’t know much about the Angry Birds game except that it used to be my son’s favorite game when he played on his dad’s Nexus, and when I sat down to watch him play, it seemed absolutely silly. But hey, it’s not for me. It’s for him, and I’m glad he’s having fun. I don’t have a problem with screen time, and while we do enforce some limits (it’s just part of our daily routine), our day’s overall screen time is definitely higher than what most conscientious parents prefer.

It’s really cool, however, when I see his interest in a game turning into a little project. All on his own one day, he made these angry birds and their raft. (Note: He already had access to all the materials he needed, and he knew how to use them, so he didn’t need anything from me.) How cool is that? Now the game doesn’t seem so silly, huh?

Never dismiss, restrict or belittle your child’s interest. Ask questions, nurture it, and it may blossom into something productive and cool! You never know!

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