Engineers Week – Part 1

Engineers WeekMy favorite tradition in our homeschool is celebrating Engineers Week.  Last year we tried celebrating a different type of engineering each day.  This year we decided to focus on one project.

Over the years I’ve found weapons are a great avenue for my boys to learn about history.  The evolution of technology and weapons is helpful for placing events in chronological order.  It’s amazing how intertwined technological advancements are with military conquest.  Sometimes armies are just better at utilizing new technologies, but quite frequently research is funded solely for military purposes.

I thought you might be interested to see part of our learning path for this semester.  I mapped out the paths that were relevant to our current project.  It’s purposefully a bit messy to illustrate the non-linear nature of interest led learning.

Catapult Map.001

Given our current interest in ancient history, we decided our project should have something to do with onagers or ballista. (Trust me before having boys I had no idea what the difference was between a trebaucht and catapult.  I certainly would not have been able to correctly describe a ballista or onager.)   A search of the library system lead me to The Art of Catapults.  I placed a hold but we weren’t able to pick it up until Tuesday.  That left us a bit short on planning and build time during our official Engineers Week.  No big deal we will just continue into next week.

The boys were so impressed with The Art of Catapults we ordered our own copy of the book within a few hours.  We decided to make a model sized wooden ballista for C and a pair of large PVC “Stone Thrower” catapults to launch water balloons at each other.

Catapult Parts

Wednesday we did the shopping which was a good experience for the boys.  They found all the pieces and loaded the carts.  They also loaded the car while I questioned my sanity.

I purchased a special PVC pipe cutting tool, which I managed to destroy it in just two cuts.  Then we used a saw.  The boys were somewhat helpful with the hacksaw, but it was taking forever.  My husband came home and hooked us up with his reciprocating saw.  Yeah, power tools for mom!  The cuts went much quicker on day two and we got about halfway finished cutting and dry fitting.

I’m hoping we will have things completed in a few days and enough warm weather to do some enjoyable testing.  I’ll keep you posted on how this project comes along.

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Weekly Wrap-Up WUH

Homeschool Gratitude

I heart homeschoolThis was one of my “I LOVE homeschool” weeks.  We all have our times of vulnerability, but for every time like that there are so many others when I say, “YES!  I love my job and there is no place else I want to be at this point in our journey.”

What made it such a great week?

Individualized Learning – This is what we are all hoping for when we start homeschooling.  Unfortunately sometimes I get caught up in comparing what we are doing to traditional school.  This week I was really able to appreciate the unique characteristics of our environment and how those elements support learning and growth.

Science Olympiad Team – Several months ago one of the moms in a Facebook group asked if anyone would be interested in putting together a Science Olympiad team.  I’m so thankful for all the work she did.  I’m also thankful for the awesome mom who volunteered to coach Aerodynamics and Simple Machines.  Over the course of the last couple of months the boys learned so much. More importantly we made new friends who enjoy science and engineering and just as much as we do.

Geography Club – Another mom put together a Geography Club for homeschoolers.  Once a month we gather for the kids to do presentations and enjoy a potluck lunch.  Each month has a theme like desserts, rivers,  or countries on the equator and each family group presents on a different area.  The kids range in age from 4 year old helpers to 13 year olds.  The presentation can be anything the kids want,  so there are skits, power points, presentation boards and games.  It’s a very supportive environment, perfect for increasing the kids comfort with public speaking.

Testing – Lately my social media feed has been full of PARCC testing / common core backlash.   Out of curiosity, I took the practice English and Math tests my oldest would take if he were in public school.  To sum it up in one word – tedious.  I could see it being frustrating for some kids and exceedingly tedious for others.  Given – most standardized tests share those characteristics, but these really seemed to take it to a new level.  It may sound selfish, but I’m so thankful we aren’t part of the public school system and forced to take these.  When we started homeschooling our dyslexic son, it was so we could focus on doing the things that would truly be helpful for him instead of wasting time and energy fighting for the things he needed.  We also wanted to focus on learning instead of constant assessing.  I really feel a lot of empathy for the parents and teachers who are working to improve the system.  Most parents want more time to be spent on learning activities that are truly beneficial to the kids.

Milestones – Those learning to read days can be exhausting, especially with dyslexia, but they make certain moments so completely precious.  This week my son picked up a book he was interested in and read independently.  This isn’t the first time, but these moments really warm a homeschool mom’s heart.  His love of reading is intact!!

Achievements – I keep a spreadsheet of “school” hours for the entire school year.  This week we completed the 900 hours mandated in our homeschool notification.  It’s very freeing.  We still have some math and grammar to complete before the end of the year and there are lots of other projects on our “to do” list, but knowing our hours are complete feels good.  Beyond checking the box, it felt good to look at the mix of hours and think of all the things we get to do with our time.  There are so many valuable learning experiences outside the scope of traditional school.   I’m not sure how many hours we will have by the end of May, but I am confident we’ve spent plenty of hours on “core” subjects while fueling our interests with experiences and hands on learning opportunities.

Flexible schedules – The weather has been brutally cold here lately.  This week we had a few breaks where things were a little warmer and the kids were able to go outside and enjoy the sunshine.  We even went skiing one morning!  We still logged 30 hours of school.  I know some people act concerned when homeschoolers are out having fun while other kids are in school, but it is actually good preparation for white collar and independent work situations.  The work is always there.  You have to find ways to schedule your time to accomplish your goals, but make sure life isn’t completely taken over by work.  This is one of the major adjustments students have to make in college.  They’ve never had the ability to schedule their own time and it can be a difficult skill to learn.  I’m glad we are getting practice now.

Meaningful volunteer opportunities – I enjoy that homeschooling gives me the time and flexibility to work on projects that are meaningful to me.  I’ve gotten involved in a group that is supporting the growth of FIRST LEGO League in our area.  It’s great to be able to contribute to increasing STEM learning.

We started this homeschool journey four years ago as an experiment.  Every year things change a little.  We find more and more experiences we enjoy and groups that fit us well.  Things are always changing, but each year I grow more and more thankful that we took the path less travelled.




What Went By : Elementary Science Olympiad

Today I’m focusing on resources to help you prepare for the “What Went By” event at an Elementary Science Olympiad.  If you have a child interested in animals and nature you will enjoy this list as well.
Wild Tracks! by Jim Arnosky is a fantastic resource.  It may look like a child’s picture book from the outside, but it is full of helpful information and LIFE-SIZE Prints.  Kids will learn that hoofed animals walk and run on their toes and wildcats use the same tracks over and over again, however this book stays away from scientific terms such as digitigrade and direct register.  Instead it is written in a friendly, digestible form perfect for independent learning even at younger ages.  The tracks examined are mostly common mammals of North America.

Animal Tracks and Signs by Jinny Johnson from National Geographic is another great resource.  The foreward does a nice job of explaining reasons a person may want to identify animal signs and tracks. The introduction provides a great list of scientific vocabulary terms that are useful for a young biologist and covered by the “What Went By” event.  The pictures of scat are very useful as most books don’t include color pictures of scat.  The scope of this book is very broad and contains information about animals from all over the world.

The Nature Series: Science on Tracking Expedition kit is also useful for kids interested in learning more about animal tracking.  The focus of this kit is purely tracking.  It comes with plaster of paris for making your own cast in nature or from the supplied molds.The matching cards that come with this kit are useful for memorizing different track attributes.  If you are creative you can create

National Geographic has a teacher’s guide that is pretty helpful when it comes to identifying scat.  We thought about doing the candy scat project, but decided we didn’t want to solidify those associations in our brains.

Our local natural history museum had a teacher’s resource kit that was very helpful.  You may want to check with your state conservation department or local park system to see if they have any kits available for loan.

In addition to the resources listed above, we found local nature centers did classes specifically about animal tracking with Science Olympiad preparation in mind.   These classes yielded some helpful hints we didn’t find in the books.


Perhaps the best preparation was just spending lots of time outdoors with an eye toward animal signs.

Mousetrap Car : Elementary Science Olympiad

This year our homeschool group put together a Science Olympiad team for the first time.  We were competing in the 4th to 6th grade division.

Our task was to design a car power completely by a mousetrap that would go EXACTLY 10 meters.  Every mm short OR long of 10 m would result in points.  Teams also gave a time estimate for completing a run.  Points were given for the difference between predicted time and actual time.  Keeping the centerline of the track between the wheels was worth a -20 point bonus.  The goal was to have the LEAST number of points.

IMG_1658The boys came up with an original design that works quite well.  The chaise is made entirely of LEGO Technic pieces.  The drive wheels are CD’s with LEGO pieces taped to them to allow for attachment to the axles.  Balloons increase the friction on the cds to prevent spinning. The final design uses florist wire to attach the mousetrap to the chaise.  A K’nex rod is taped to mousetrap as an extension rod.  The final design used the wheels shown, but without the tires.


This mousetrap car was quite capable of going more than 10 m.


After a lot of trials on different flooring surfaces the boys thought they had the right distance figured out.  For some reason their results at the competition didn’t match what they had the day before.


Adjustments to the pull string length seemed the most reliable way of adjusting the travel distance.  A shorter pull string traveled shorter distances.

We tried a braking system, but our design was hard to set and tangled too easily.

I was really pleased that the boys came up with a design that was completely original.  It made the project a lot more fun and interesting.

Using LEGO pieces limited the axle length.  A larger width would have made it easier to earn the centerline bonus, but their design did earn the centerline bonus on one of its two runs.

Almost all the cars at the competition used the same design,  a rectangle of basswood with four cd wheels and threaded axles.  They used a longer extension arm that was pinned down when the mousetrap was set.  The result was they could leave the string attached to the axle and self brake.