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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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!