Cheerleaders

This week for my biotechnology course I had to build a bioreactor and its subsystems that would allow me to capture and measure the carbon dioxide gas produced in order to determine the volume of ethanol in my dextrose and yeast solution.

Translation:  I had to use yeast and sugar water to make alcohol and tell how much I had made by capturing the CO2.

Needless to say, with more than a decade between me and my last biology and chemistry courses, this was a challenge.  (And that was an understatement.)

I’ve been working on this project for about three weeks now.  Here is a rundown of the steps:

  1. Attempted to not freak out by assuring myself that all other elementary teachers in the class are in the same boat.  “He won’t let us fail,” was my frequent self-talk.
  2. Started a list of, “What I Know.”  For many minutes that list consisted of one statement:  Yeast is a fungus.  This is all I could remember from teaching fifth grade science.
  3. Began research.  I alternated between YouTube home brew videos, that were probably not credible sources, and scholarly articles that I could not understand.
  4. Drew first plan.  It was a joke.
  5. Met with my 5 person planning team via video conference.  One I couldn’t see, one I couldn’t hear, and the other two were nearly as clueless as I was.
  6. Spent a week revising plan after plan, muddling my way through mole calculations and projected volume.
  7. Found a God-send in Cheryl, a like-minded fourth grade teacher who doesn’t make me feel dumb.  We have sent countless Facebook messages and emails, shared chicken scratch calculations, and used Google Hangouts at all sorts of odd hours of the day.
  8. Consulted two other people who don’t usually make me feel dumb:  Jay and Papa.  One night I even made them both talk to Cheryl over Hangouts after dinner.
  9. Submitted a plan and received very vague feedback.
  10. Gathered all of the materials.  This consisted of very grouchy trips to Walmart, the pet store, and Michael’s with my two little people.  After dinner I made Jay continue the shopping, with them, while I wrote a paper for another class.  No rest for the weary….him or me!
  11. Felt pretty ready when class started.  We were supposed to build it in class, and I had about 95% of what I needed.  Except my ideas were all wrong.  My containers were too huge, and I spent most of our building time trying to find new materials in the lab while editing my design.  I shed the first of many tears over this thing that night.
  12. Forgot about it for almost a week while I Love Math Day happened.
  13. Day 2 of in-class building went so much better.  Something said in class made me think of a way to stir the solution:  LittleBits.

So the listing the steps idea sounded like a great plan when I started this post, but now I realize if I keep going, probably only my mom (and maybe Cheryl) will keep reading.  So let me just skip straight to the point:

I had a decent trial run, but my first and second, “Ok….let’s do this for real!” were complete flops.  I came home in tears last night, puddled on the sofa while Jay tried to talk me back to life.  I was doing every last thing that I don’t want to see my students or own kids do when they face a challenge.

But this morning I was at it again.  Fueled by enough hours of sleep and the promise of an entire free day ahead of me, I started in on the research again, determined to figure out the trick of immobilization.

And it worked. Tiny, glorious CO2 bubbles floating up a clear tube into my graduated cylinder brought me some ridiculous joy.

So this afternoon as I was prancing downtown to meet my family during my one hour break from data collection, I couldn’t help but consider those truly crappy moments of this challenge and what had gotten me through:

The cheerleaders.

*Jay with his calm spirit, reassuring words, and frequent reminders of, “I’m proud of you.”
*Cheryl who understood what I was going through and said, “I feel like I’m in the waiting room at labor an delivery,” while waiting to hear if my design was working.
*Chica who asked me fantastic questions about what I was doing this morning on the phone.  “What did you do differently?” and “Can you make it thinner?” she asked. Her sweet questions helped to slowly bring me out of the dizziness and back into the problem solving mode.
*Alissa and Rachel, my running amigas who are also both in grad school.  They text me about translation theory and Sherlock, I send them pictures of my moonshine creator, and we all laugh at how different but the same our lives really are.
*My students who seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing, and the sweet little guy who told me I had inspired him to build something one day.
*My mom and mother-in-law who are relentless in their support.

May this project be a reminder to me of what my kids need next time it seems impossible.  Most of the time they don’t need a, “Suck it up,” or a lecture on how failure is just an opportunity to learn something.

They need a cheerleader, and hopefully I can be that for them.

(Ok….back to tending my graduated cylinders and watching bubbles trickle up.  1060 mL of CO2 and counting.)

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My Ten New Things

Last week my friend Brittany wrote a post about the ten (terrifying!) NEW things she tried in 2016.  Her words got me wondering if I could think of my own ten new things from 2016.  Here goes!

1. Running Buddies:

What began as my most terrifying new thing turned out to be my absolute favorite part of 2016. I heard about the No-Pressure Running Group from a friend when training for the Richmond Marathon in 2015.  For whatever reason, I pictured a perfectly manicured group of Boonsboro mamas prancing up the Monument Terrace steps like it was no biggie.  I just knew they would be too fast and too cool for me.

Fast forward to the summer of 2016 when a sweet friend from church invited me to run with this same group.  At that point I wasn’t even sure if I could run the 5 miles they had planned, but I sucked up my fears and agreed to meet her anyway.  I quickly learned that this group was not at all what I had expected.  These women are real and flawed and smart and supportive and strong and amazing.  So for about six months now, the promise of good company has helped to drag my rear out of bed at 4:50 (or 5:00, or 5:13) a few mornings each week.  They’ve kept me running through the cold and pushed me to run faster and longer.  But more importantly, I now have a great new group of friends that have each been a tremendous blessing in my life.

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2. A New Job:

At the start of this school year I took a new position as the STREAM Coach & Math Remediation Specialist.  That’s a big-ol’ crazy mouthful that means I get to help kids build stuff and get better at math all day…what could be better than that?  The hard parts have been getting the room ready in time for school to start, missing working closely everyday with teammates, learning 500+ names, and figuring out how to respond to students with love and understanding when expectations aren’t met .  The best parts have been witnessing growth among both the students and teachers, the excitement I see as students get to collaborate and create, and nights (every once in a while) where I don’t come home to hours of prep or grading or emails.  Oh….and a schedule that makes those 5:30am runs possible!

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3. A New Degree

In April I finished my Master’s in Math Education K-6 from WGU.  At the end of this program, I was convinced that higher education is where I eventually wanted to land.  I knew that this degree was only going to get me so far, so I immediately started looking for the what-next.  For now the what-next is Integrative STEM Education classes online through Virginia Tech.  For me this has meant many late nights in the library at LC fueled by gummy worms.  For Jay this has meant countless nights of holding down the fort on his own.  I tell him and tell him, but I so hope he realizes how thankful I am for him.

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4. Blue Apron

A friend of my parents gifted us with a free trial of this meal service.  I had fully intended to get the free box and then cancel the subscription because it’s so expensive.  However, we really liked it!  The recipes were simple but interesting.  They forced us to slow down and eat at home.  We got some recipes that we liked so much we’ve repeated them several times with ingredients we’ve bought at the store.  Also, the portions are generally good sizes so neither of us overeats.  We were getting a box once a month, but now we’ve bumped back to every few months because we can reuse the recipes we already have.

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5. Mountain Biking

Whenever I run on the Peaks View Park trails, I get the mountain biking itch.  Before this year, I’ve never really tried it, but these trails (more than the ones at Candler’s) make it look like fun to me.  I remember thinking after a run this summer, “I wish there was a way I could learn to mountain bike….like a class or something.”  Well whadayaknow?!?  A few days later I ran across an ad for a beginner mountain biking class that would be offered through Parks and Rec.  It was super cheap and at a time when Jay could watch the kids, so I signed up!  I loved the class, but I left convinced that my bike from circa eighth grade just wasn’t going to cut it for many more rides.  I got a new bike for my birthday, followed promptly by a new school year that took up every free minute of time I might have had to ride.  I’m hoping that 2017 will bring more rides…and maybe a friend or two that will go with me!

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6. LuLaRoe

legginsSoooo….yeah.  I seriously debated whether or not to include this in my ten new things list, but I finally decided that ten years from now rereading this would probably give me a good chuckle.  At some point this year the Facebooks blew up with the LuLaRoe.  It somehow went from one college friend selling it to a gazillion sales every week.  I’ve never been a fan of buying something I haven’t tried on, so I waited until I got invited to a real-live party to buy any.  Somehow I got out of there with a bright orange pair of tights with blue paper airplanes.  What in the world?  And while they do actually feel as good on as everyone says they do, I can’t help but wonder what we’ll say about ourselves in 2026.  “Ahh….remember those leggings we all used to wear!?!  With unicorns and spaceships and flamingos and pineapples….what were we thinking?!”

7. Pokemon Goimg_2187

As usual, I’m a little late to this trend.  We just downloaded it over Christmas break, and I finally see what all the fuss is about.  It’s fun!  Grandma and I have been texting each other back and forth about our current level and how many we’ve caught.  She’s currently skunking me on level 14.  As soon as this post is up, I think we’re headed out to LC to try to catch up to her.  🙂

8. Twitter

twitterYep…also late on this one.  I started tweeting in March after hearing George Couros at LC.  While I was certainly hesitant to get started, so many good things came from tweeting the second half of our school year.  I think it’s fun to look back and have a record of what we did, but the best part was collaborating with a class in Canada through Twitter.  This school year I haven’t used it nearly as much because I’ve been sharing what we’re doing at school through Facebook instead.

9. Tutoring

A friend at school asked me to help tutor her in math for a few weeks over the summer.  She wanted help getting ready for a math placement test she had to take at CVCC.  Until this year I have never tutored adults, or hardly anyone for that matter, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help her.  It was such a rewarding experience to watch her grasp concepts and gain confidence.  I hope to do more of this in the future!

10. Aid Station-ing

There are people who run 60+ miles in below-freezing temperatures, in the mountains, just for fun.  There are also people who stand outside in those below-freezing temperatures to feed hungry runners, thaw out their bottles, and cheer them on….just for fun.  So while I was not crazy enough (yet) to run the Hellgate race, I did help with three aid stations for this ridiculous event.  It was so inspiring.  And cold.

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How about you….what did you do new in 2016?   

Thanks, Brittany, for the inspiration!  Follow her at TheBamBlog.com.

 

2016 STEM Toy Gift Guide

Recently I received a Facebook question from a friend:
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This was such a fun question to answer!  I’ve spent the last year combing catalogs, blogs, and conferences for this very thing in order to stock the STREAM Lab with engaging tools and toys.  I’ve been able to watch how my students react to each of these items, plus what my own kids (5 & 8) choose to play with each day after school.  So in case there’s another mom or teacher out there trying to navigate the multitude of STEM toy choices, I offer you my kid-tested, teacher-approved list:

A Definite YES:
My top 6…

 

 

  • Sphero SPRK Edition Around $80sphero_sprk_edition
    This works with easy to use, free apps.  Don’t ever buy a remote control anything again…buy this instead!  My kids are getting another Sphero product for Christmas, the Ollie, because you can use it outside.  (Shhh….don’t tell them!)

 

  • Ozobot 2.0 Bit Around $50ozobot-bit
    I like this one because not only can kids code using Ozobot’s apps, but it also reads code drawn on paper with regular Crayola markers.  And it’s so darn cute.  Check out what my students created for our Ozobots in class!

 

 

  • Microscope Around $85microscope
    This microscope had great reviews on Amazon when Grandma was picking one out for Chica, and it didn’t disappoint.  We have quite the collection of dead bugs and plant parts in containers around the house thanks to this gift.  These prepared slides turned out to be fascinating too.

 

  • Zoobs $55 or lesszoobs
    Like the Keva planks, these are virtually indestructible and hard to lose.  With a little imagination, you can make almost anything, but hats and glasses are a favorite in our house.  The set I’ve linked is what I have in my classroom, but you could easily get by with a smaller set for home.

 

  • Prime Climb Around $30prime-climb
    I found this game thanks to a tweet for a Kickstarter campaign.  It’s a math nerd’s dream.  If a board game can be beautiful, this is.

 

Yes, But…$$$
These are all highly recommended, but I feel like they are a little pricey.  I would suggest holding out for a good deal.

  • Legos Price Varieslegos
    In our house, one can never have too many.  One of the best deals I have found is Black Friday at Walmart.  They usually have a really big set of basic blocks as a door buster.  It’s worth waiting in the line.

 

 

  • Magna-Tiles or Magformers Price Variesmagnatiles
    If either of these are ever the Amazon Deal of the Day, let me know!  Bubba has a small set, but I want more for the lab.

 

  • Big Ball of Whacks Around $25big-ball-of-whacks-6-colors
    I have to admit, I think I like this toy more than the kids do.  It’s great for anybody that likes to fidget.

 

 

 

  • Goobi $100 or lessgoobi
    Hmmm….do you see a pattern?  Three out of four of my “too expensive” items are magnets.  Stay away from this toy if you have a little one that still put things in his or her mouth.

 

Yes
All of these are things I highly recommend, just not enough to make my Top Six list.  

  • Marble Run Around $40marble-run
    This particular set is good quality and has lots of interesting pieces.  Bubba especially likes this toy, but he still has a hard time building it on his own.  This is a favorite toy to pull out when we have a babysitter or Grandpa over to play.  You HAVE to watch this!

 

 

  • Makey Makey Around $50makey-makey
    If your kids are into Scratch, this is a great add-on.  Chica still needs some help with this one, so I’d recommend it for older kids.

 

  • GeoPlay  Around $25geoplay
    These seem to take a while for kids to get into, maybe because they don’t go together in the same way as other building toys.  I think the longer kids play, the more they like them.

 

 

  • Snap Circuits $18 and up
    The fourth grade science teacher in me loves these sets.  The mom in me worries about the pieces being broken or lost.  I would recommend them for at least 8 and up, and check out this adapter that lets you bypass the need for batteries.
  • Sewing Kit, Price Variessewing-kit
    I taught Chica how to sew by hand a couple of years ago.  Then she kept wanting to borrow my stuff and leave it all over the house.  If I ever wanted to use my materials again, I knew I had to get her her own.  I didn’t find a pre-packaged set that I really liked, so I put one together for her.  It included a sewing box, good quality scissors, thread, needles, pins, big scraps of fabric, a seam ripper, measuring tape, pin cushion, and a yo-yo maker.  (That last one was thanks to our CrossRoads friend Peggy!)
  • Root-Vue Farm Around $30root-vue
    This is not exactly a toy, but it’s such a neat contraption for learning about germination, roots, and how plants grow.

 

 

  • Qwirkle & Blockers Around $20 each
    blockersqwirkleThese are two strategy games that our family likes, but they’re definitely best for older kids or adults.

 

 

  • Drill Around $50drill
    I’m a fan of letting kids use real tools as soon as they are able to do it safely.  Papa built Bubba his own mini workbench, and he received a hammer, measuring tape, and screwdrivers that he uses with supervision.  He’s used my cordless drill from school recently too.

 

  • Hot Wheels tracks  Around $60hot-wheels
    A few years ago I stumbled upon an offer for a free classroom set.  I pulled it out for two different classes this week, and I remembered again how much kids like it!  The exact set I have is not available anymore, but you could create something similar with the one I’ve linked above plus these extra track pieces.

 

  • Tumble Trax Around $25tumle-trax
    This is probably the most used toy in the STREAM Lab.  We mounted a huge piece of metal that we got for less than $40 from BMG Metals, much like this tutorial, but a big fridge would work well too. Together with this folding stool, you have hours and hours fun.

 

Quality toys….but not our favorite
So many times I pick out something just knowing that my students or my own kids are going to LOVE it, only to be surprised when they quickly lose interest.  That’s the case with each of these final 4 toys.  Your kids might love them, but they haven’t gotten much play in our house and/or my classroom.

  • Goldibloxs  $15 and upgoldiblocks
    I love the idea behind this toy, but the kit we put together seemed difficult to modify beyond the design offered in the instructions.  I like toys that encourage kids to keep trying new things.  We had one of the very first kits made, so it’s possible that newer models have improved.

 

  • Gears! Gears! Gears! Around $40gears
    This toy seemed great for little guys, but it turned out it was harder to make interesting designs than I had expected.  By the time kids are able to really build with it, I think it seems more like a baby toy.

 

 

  • Q-BA-Maze $25 and upq-ba-maze
    These look SO cool, but both my kids and I find them hard to manipulate.  Because the connections are a bit confusing, the most interesting pieces seem to get broken easily when kids try to force them.  This is definitely geared to older kids.

 

  • K’Nex Price Variesknex
    I bought a bunch of these at yard sales over the summer.  Now I know why I could find K’Nex and never Legos…..kids are so much more drawn to Legos.  I have a brand new classroom set that I plan to break out soon in a small group…maybe I can change a few kids’ minds!

One Final Suggestion
Haven’t we all witnessed the fact that some of the best toys are not toys at all?  They’re trash…..shoe boxes, wrapping paper rolls, bubble wrap, etc.  Check out a leftover Kindergarten small group project that kept Bubba busy most of the afternoon one day this week:

So if you haven’t already, you may want to consider collecting a bin of supplies that could be your kid’s own mini engineering kit.  For tools I’d suggest tacky glue, glue stick, low temperature glue gun, hole puncher, small scissors and big scissors, a ruler, masking tape, Scotch tape, and duct tape.  I’d also get a box cutter, but store this away for only supervised use.  For basic materials consider popsicle sticks, string, cotton balls, rubber bands, clay, straws, and pipe cleaners.  Finally, get a big empty tub where your budding engineer can store all sorts of interesting recycled materials until they’re ready to create the next project.

Then sit back and watch.

How about you?  Which STEM toys are your family’s favorite?  Which weren’t worth it?  Which toys are you considering but aren’t quite sure yet if you’re going to pull the trigger?  I’d love to hear from you!