Having Fun with STEM Learning

It’s been a little quiet on the blog lately.  That’s because our life has been full of this:


Our dining room has been completely taken over by LEGO Mindstorms and I love it.  We built a competition table that fits over our dining room table and added a temporary “desk” for the kids to use while doing programming.  E continued on with his team and will be competing in his third year of FIRST LEGO League (FLL).  This year I’m coaching a rookie FLL team for C and his friends.

It’s busy and chaotic sometimes, but I absolutely love it.

FLL is about so much more than a robotics competition.  The kids work on a research project and come up with an innovative solution.  They also share their project and solution with a few audiences before they go to a tournament.  This year teams are answering the question, “How can we improve the way someone learns……?”  They come up with a project board and put together a presentation about their project.  The presentations are skits, power points, songs, or anything else the team feels is appropriate.

Teams also learn and display the core values of FLL.  This means they are learning that what they discover is more important than what they win and how to truly honor the spirit of friendly competition.  They work on learning how to find solutions on their own, be a team, and very importantly – HAVE FUN.  The core values aren’t just given lip service.  Awards are given specifically for displaying exceptional core values and teams that score poorly in this area don’t advance.

EV3 PBL Mission World Class

And what would a robot competition be without a robot?  Teams are judged on their robot design and programming as well as its performance.

It’s a lot of work for both the kids and a rookie coach trying to keep up with them.  It is well worth the effort.  I enjoy seeing the kids learn how to program a robot and celebrate when a mission goes correctly.    The robot really brings together a nice combination of mechanical design and programming skills.  The project is always interesting and inspires creativity.  The core values do a great job of teaching valuable professional skills.

I was a little nervous going into this year, but I’ve learned a lot and definitely plan to coach a team again next year.  The new EV3 is easier to program than the older NXT and I don’t have to know a lot more than the kids.  One of the core values is that kids do the work with guidance from their coach.  Looking things up and watching videos together is part of the learning process and valuable for the kids.  Sometimes I can anticipate our needs and learn ahead of the kids, but sometimes we really are learning at the same time.

I look forward to doing more blogging once our tournament is complete and I will let you know what fun and exciting projects I see!

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Science Finds Us

Fossils - Devonian Era(?) Hinkley Reservation

This might look like just a rock BUT if you look closely those are little coral fossils.  Want to know the best part?  We found these fossils in the middle of a hiking trail on a Tuesday afternoon.


There were actually several fossils in the immediate area.  Cool huh?

When we keep our eyes open, science lessons find us everywhere!

Atmospheric Science – Part 2

We are continuing our study of atmospheric science using lesson plans from UCAR with our own twist.  The activity today closely followed Introduction to the Atmosphere – Activity 3.  

Today’s activity was short, but packed with important concepts.

First we watched the following short videos from the Canadian Museum of Nature:

Part 1

Part 2

I emphasized to the boys that not all molecules are polar.  The polarity of water gives it properties that are important.  The polarity is introduced due to an uneven sharing of the electrons that create the bond between hydrogen and oxygen.

After viewing the videos,  we used paper plates and M&Ms to make models of water in it’s solid, liquid and gas states.


C chose to use single M&Ms to represent each water molecule.  This representation allowed us to shake the plate rapidly to represent gas molecules and more slowly when representing molecules in the liquid state.  He glued the molecules to the plate when representing ice and drew in the hydrogen bonds.

We briefly discussed that it is a combination of pressure AND temperature that effect the state of matter, but for our purposes we would be discussing water at a constant atmospheric pressure.  We also reviewed the temperatures at which state changes begin to occur in both Celsius and Fahrenheit at atmospheric pressure.



E chose to emphasize the  H2O structure of water.  The disadvantage was we couldn’t shake the gas and liquid plates, but we were more clearly able to see the need to line up the hydrogens facing the oxygen in the solid state.

Both boys used a roughly equivalent number of molecules in their solid and liquid representations.  We ended up moving a couple of molecules from solid over to liquid to emphasize that ice is less dense than water, which they knew but just didn’t think to count the number of molecules in each plate.

The shape of the arrangement and hydrogen bonds didn’t turn out exactly right in the models, but they did understand the concept of attraction between slight positive and negative charges that are easily overcome at higher temperatures (faster vibration).

Between the videos and the models the boys were able to clearly understand why ice is less dense than water and why that is a “special” case.  They were also able to grasp that hydrogen bonding between molecules is a much weaker force than the sharing of electrons between atoms, yet the hydrogen bonds are important in creating the structure of ice and causing it to float.

In addition to the lesson plan I think it is worth pondering some of the ways our world would be completely different if ice weren’t slightly less dense than water.  How would that impact life in ponds?  What about polar bears?  What about the planet as a whole?

Periodic Videos offers some thoughts on the importance of the density of ice:

Hope you are having a great day exploring the world around you!



Atmospheric Science – Part 1

This summer as I was trying to find a good answer to a particular science question,  I found a lesson plan that really did a great job answering the given question and giving a hands on activity that illustrated the concept well.  Then I realized the lesson plan was part of an entire set of Atmospheric Science lesson plans from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research designed for middle school teachers.  The more of the plans and activities I read through the more I thought –  “These will be great to use with the boys! ”  There are lots of suggestions for hands on activities that will appeal to a variety of learning styles.

Today we started out with the boys telling me what they already knew about the atmosphere.  Then we read through about the first half of the Intro to the Atmosphere lesson.  After that we were ready to start with one of the suggested hands on activities.

Atmospheric Science - Sorting the M&Ms

What could be better for the first day of school than counting M&Ms?

Atmospheric Science - Representation of Earth's Atmosphere

First we counted out 78 Blue M&Ms to represent the amount of nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere. Then 21 green M&Ms to represent oxygen and 1 brown piece to represent Argon.  There is a fleck of red in there somewhere to represent the 0.03% carbon dioxide.

Atmospheric Science - Earth, Venus, and Mars

Next we used the same color system to represent the make up of the atmospheres of Venus and Mars.

In addition to the planned topics, we had some great discussions about the contribution of plants to our environment, the water cycle, and ozone.  Then it was time for the best part:

Atmospheric Science - Eating the M&Ms

Eating some of the M&Ms!

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Happy Father’s Day!

Jumping waves Over the years my husband has received some unique birthday and Father’s Day presents.  One year E made a card in the form of a paper airplane and another year the neighbor girls helped the boys stage a birthday parade.

I wanted to share their projects from this year in case you’re looking for a low / no cost creative solution.

E used Scratch to make a personalized greeting card!  (Push the green flag after it loads)

C made a Rube Goldberg contraption – marble run to magnetic cannon to flying pig to spinning Father’s Day banner.

The Scratch creation took less than 30 minutes. (If you want an invisible sprite just select the sprite and unclick “show” – that’s how E made it look like the picture was talking)  The Rube Goldberg contraption took considerably longer to design, troubleshoot, film, and edit.  C put more than 2 hours into the project.  We also put together a short iMovie just for dad.

It was great to see how naturally they chose engineering, coding and technology to create special keepsakes.

We’re looking forward to spending time with dad this weekend creating more memories.

Hope you have a wonderful Father’s Day!

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A visit to Old Woman Creek Estuary


This week is one of our first truly beautiful weather weeks.  We’ve had a great time birding and generally exploring the outdoors.


Tuesday we took a “field exploration” day and spent the entire day birding and walking at Magee Marsh and Old Woman Creek Estuary.   We thought the tessellated pavers at the OWC visitor center were really neat.  It was so much fun to just walk and look for nests and signs of wildlife.  We were sitting on a little bridge taking a rest for several minutes before we noticed the raccoon prints. Wildflowers@OWC

The woods are finally starting to green up and it is really beginning to feel like spring.


The highlight of our trip was seeing 4 bald eagles in one day.  While we were at the estuary, there was an observation point where we could see one eagle perched in a tree while another was soaring around.  We could also see their nest, but not all from the same angle.  In a world where so many animal populations are in decline, it’s nice to see a species that is recovering.

These are the days I really love homeschool.  We’ve done plenty of math, reading and grammar.  Now during these nice weather days we have plenty of time to be outdoors adding experience to our learning.  In turn, the experience we gain on days like these helps us ask fresh questions and spurs us on to learn even more about the world around us.

Check out the Magee Marsh post for more pics – including a bald eagle on its nest and lots of warblers.

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Spring Migration at Magee Marsh

By now you know we are always trying to learn more about animals and nature here at Learning with Boys.  We’re fortunate to live near Lake Erie, which happens to provide us some fabulous birding opportunities.  I’ve never been a birder, but the boys are curious about all types of animals.

Magee Marsh Bald Eagle in parking lot

Nesting Bald Eagle picture taken by one of the boys

This week we visited Magee Marsh and Old Woman Creek Estuary.  We were thrilled to see bald eagles at both locations, plus a bonus sighting along the highway before we even reached our first destination.

Black-throated Green Warbler (?) @ Magee MarshMagee Marsh is a hot spot for warblers this time of year.  In fact, the local tourism boards and birder associations put on a big festival that draws people from all over the US.

Blue-winged Warbler (?) Magee Marsh 5/6

If you don’t know anything about birding this is actually a great time to go.  The board walk at Magee Marsh is filled with people who have some serious optics and considerable bird knowledge.

Tennessee Warbler @ Magee Marsh 5/6

Normally I’m the type of person who likes to avoid crowds, but as an amateur I found it really helpful to clue in on where other people were looking and ask what type of bird they were seeing.  Magee Marsh - UFO 1

Most of the time we didn’t have to even ask what type of bird people were watching, because when they saw children, they asked, “Have you spotted the…..?”

Magee Marsh - UFO 2

Photographing the birds was exceptionally challenging.  Many of them stay on a branch fractions of a second less than what it takes me to center and manually focus the camera. The black and white warblers are exceptionally cute, but they hop around branches so quickly I ended up with photos of empty branches.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

In addition to warblers, we saw a rose-breasted grosbeak, a winter wren, and some thrushes.  We also saw lots and lots of robins and red-winged blackbirds.


We’ve been learning about migratory flyways and the importance of marshes and estuaries, so the boys were delighted to get an entire day devoted to a field trip.

To top off our great week of bird watching we put out our hummingbird feeders and saw the first ruby throat of the season!  Maybe this year I’ll succeed in getting a picture at our feeder.  If you have a chance to visit Lake Hope, Ohio they have a wonderful hummingbird program where you can “hand-feed” hummingbirds starting in July.

Rainy Nights

Not to talk about the weather but…..


I super love this time of year, when the weather warms up, and we are doing field studies for biology and geology.  Monday we set off for Magee Marsh near Toledo, Ohio to see if we could find any migrating warblers.  I promise I checked the forecast – Rain in the late afternoon, high near 60 F.  I may have missed the wind speed.  When we got there it was 40 F with the wind howling off the lake at 30+ mph and steady rain.  The drive home was steady rain too.  SO… Our hike was a very short mile.  We did see a few warblers.  The warblers can’t to fly across Lake Erie in that kind of weather, so they were tucked in some low branches.  I wasn’t able to get any pictures of the warblers – I hope to remedy that within the next two weeks while the migration is still going.


The trip wasn’t a waste – We saw a couple of bald eagle’s nests (pictured) and actually saw an eagle land in the nest, disappear, and leave again about 5 minutes later.  We saw lots of egrets and what we think was a cormorant.  We are looking forward to making a return trip next week hopefully with warmer weather.

Egret at Magee Marsh

We spent some time reading Marvels in the Muck  by Doug Wechsler.  It’s a great book about salt water marshes and estuaries.   Of course now we are wondering, “What are the differences between salt water marshes vs. the marshes and estuaries around Lake Erie?”

FLL CollageAll the stormy weather this week was a great reminder how much E’s team learned during this past year’s FIRST LEGO League (FLL) season.  The theme for 2013-2014 was Nature’s Fury.  Each team selected a natural disaster, researched it and presented an innovative solution.  The solution isn’t just for FLL competition.  The kids share the solution with the community it is designed to help.  E’s team researched tornadoes and developed a Debris Protection System.  There’s no substitute for a safe shelter but the Debris Protection System can help because – “Wearing a helmet during a tornado is a no brainer.”

I was working on my end of year summary, and it was great to see how FLL contributed to some really great unit studies.  I love that these kids are encouraged to research, reach out to experts, use their creativity, and make a contribution to their community in addition to developing programming skills.  Sign up for the 2014 – 2015 FLL season begins May 5th.  The theme will be:


The promo says, “Teams will teach adults how kids want and need to learn.”  I’m really excited about this challenge.  I hope educators and policy makers are paying attention, because the kids are going to come up with some great ideas.

Speaking of great ideas – if you didn’t have a chance to check out the finale of the Angelic Scalliwags  Medieval study it is amazing.  Claire does such a great job guiding her kids through project based learning studies.

Much of our week was spent shivering beside soccer fields.  I really appreciate the coaches and all the time they put into coaching and encouraging the boys.  Wednesday night practices were rained out and I found myself walking around the house singing, “I love a rainy night.”  It was such a joy to have a relaxed dinner with the kiddos.

What places are you exploring?

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With Easter coming up it’s a great time to do some egg-perimenting.


Egg in a Bottle – I’d been wanting to do this experiment forever, but hadn’t been able to find a jar with a neck the correct size.  I finally discovered that Starbucks Fraps come with the perfect egg-sized neck.   We used a candle held upright in a pinch of play dough as the combustion source in the bottle.  Light the candle and top the bottle with a PEELED boiled egg.  As the air inside the bottle heats and the pressure increases the egg will dance around releasing air from the bottle.  Once the flame goes out and the air cools the egg should be sucked down into the bottle.

Egg Spin

Spinning Eggs – This one is so wonderfully simple!  Spin a hard boiled egg and an uncooked egg and observe the difference.

Egg Toss

Egg Drop –  Use plastic grocery bags, sponges, strings, balloons, tape and/or pipe cleaners to make parachutes for eggs and then toss them off the play set.

Illuminated Naked EggNaked Egg – Soak a few uncooked eggs in vinegar for a couple of days.  The vinegar will eat away the shell but leave the membrane.  The vinegar also permeates the membrane and swells the egg.  As a follow up try soaking the egg(s) in corn syrup.

Natural Egg Dyes – You can find a list of natural dyes to try at Better Homes and Gardens.    Red cabbage is supposed to produce a nice blue color on the eggs.

Color MixingUse regular egg / food coloring to do color mixing experiments.

Use Egg Shells as containers for Seedlings 

Egg Walk



Walk on Eggs – We saw this one posted somewhere and I thought why not give it a try.  The key is to go quickly and stay well balanced.  One of the boys did it effortlessly without any broken eggs.  The other…..well let’s say we all had a terrific laugh and the kitchen floor got mopped.








That’s the end of our list for now.  So break out the eggs and have some fun!



5 Plans for Engineers’ Week

Homeschool 2012-132A couple of weeks ago I shared some of the activities we did for Engineers’ Week last year.  This year I’m actually planning ahead so I’m hoping it will be even more fun!

1. Visit a FAB LAB.  What is a FAB LAB?  It’s a fabrication laboratory where people can create “stuff” using 3D printers, laser engravers, and other equipment.  Check out this link to find out what you can do at a FAB LAB or this one to find one near you.

2. Computer Programming – Since E has 2 years of experience programming the LEGO Mindstorm NXT through  FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and C will be on a FLL team next season, we will be completing a programming challenge similar to the one found here.

If you want to do programming as part of Engineers’ Week, but don’t have access to a robot give code.org, light bot, or scratch a try.

3. Take a fun factory tour –  Check out Factory Tours USA to see what factory tours are available in your area.  We’re planning to tour a Chocolate Factory with some homeschooling friends.

4. Celebrate Pi Day on 3/14 – I’m planning to do circle art and calculate the perimeter of a very large circle.  Of course we will make chocolate pie for dessert.

5. Building Bridges –  We’ve recently picked up a couple of books about bridges including one with directions for building your own bridges.  We’re lucky enough to live close to a few historic lift bridges, so we will visit some of those.  I’m also planning on the boys putting together a model of a lift bridge like the one above.

Some of my plans may go by the wayside if the boys come up with their own ideas, that’s okay. This is a fun week of exploring, creating, building, and designing.

List_it_Tuesday      Highhill Homeschool