Learning with Catapults

Catapults from kitsMy boys love catapults.  Whether we are learning about early methods of warfare, watching Pumpkin Chunking’, or flinging marshmallows at each other – catapults are a constant source of engineering wonder.  Over the years the boys have built multiple catapults from kits as well as from scratch.

This year they were able to compete together in a Science Olympiad event called Ready, Aim, Fire!

IMG_0069The competition requires building a catapult of dimensions less than 65 cm x 65 cm x 65 cm powered only by a falling counterweight.  At the competition teams are given counterweights of 1 kg and 2 kg that are used to launch projectiles of 20-40g and 40-60g respectively.  Before the competition teams are expected to launch projectiles of various masses and record data.  The team prepares plots that are used to show where various projectile masses are expected to land.  On the day of competition the catapults are impounded.  After all devices are impounded, the judges announce the masses of the two projectiles that will be used that day.  Teams use their prepared graphs to determine how far they think their catapult will throw the projectiles and then tell the judges where they would like their target set in 0.5 m increments.

Launch scores (LS) are determined using the formula:

LS = TD – 3A +B

where TD is the target distance requested by the kids, A is the distance from where the projectile makes first impact to the center of the target and B is a bonus for hitting the target.  B = 0.15 x TD if the projectile hits the target and 0.30 x TD if the projectile stays in the target.   All distances are in meters.

Points are also awarded for graphing. (Up to 12 points).

This was a great project for the boys.  They handled much of the build themselves.  I helped out with a few of the cuts and my husband taught the boys to use the drill press.  My husband handled the original “basket” build with the boys making modifications later.

E recently had lessons in geometry and basic trigonometry, so he was able to use his knowledge of sin and cos to make the throw arm its maximum length while maintaining the optimum ratio of counterweight arm length to projectile arm length.   We also taught C the methods he was using.  It was a rather complex calculation so we set up a spreadsheet to do some iterations (side lesson on radians vs. angles was necessary).

The boys previous build experience came in very handy.  From the beginning they understood a trebuchet design would be best design for distance.  They also understood the importance of release angles and were quite keen at recognizing when the release angle was off and doing things to improve it.

Testing the trebuchet took quite a bit of time as they chose to make improvements to the basket and sling which required re-collecting all the data points they already had.  They used a spreadsheet to organize their data and select the trend line.

All their hard work paid off when they were able to make accurate predictions the day of the competition.  They were able to hit the target on the 1 kg launch and come very close on their 2 kg launch (the ball landed just a bit to the right).

Boys with TrebuchetIt was a very exciting day for them.  They were thrilled to take home first place medals and they are already looking forward to competing in the middle school division next year.

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Happy Halloween!

IMG_2623What a fun crafty time of year it is!  We actually finished a couple of our pumpkins ahead of time this year!  Can I tell you I got a little verklempt when E carved his pumpkin without help?  C painted a minion on a spaghetti squash which was a fun departure from the standard pumpkin fare.  When I saw recycled jars turned into luminaries at the zoo I knew we had to do that at home this year.  So super easy and fun!

IMG_2627 I thought I was done doing “room mom” stuff,  but our Science Club is having a Halloween Party and I volunteered to do the big kid craft.  We are doing paper haunted houses.  It’s really all about how much work you want to put into it so some kids will probably take a long time and others a few minutes.  I figured it would be something they could replicate at home if they enjoyed it.  I ended up making a quick pattern that I could print onto the card stock.  I was really wishing for a fancy cutting machine so we could make our own bat and tree cut outs.  You can check out the paper houses I used for inspiration.  I chose to make mine larger so they took two piece of 8.5″x11″ cardstock for the walls and another half sheet for the roof.  I didn’t make a floor to make it easier to just set them over an LED tealight.


The boys have been taking archery lessons this semester.  Usually they shoot inside, but this week they had the chance to shoot pumpkins at a much longer distance.  I love that we are able to work things like this into our schedule!

Hope you have a very Happy Halloween!

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Weekly Wrap-Up WUH

Interest Led Learning

How do you know what to teach?  This is one of the more frequent questions I answer as a homeschooler.  I think the thing that baffles some people the most is that we don’t use a science curriculum – because my kids love science.  What does “interest led” learning look like?

Last week I assured readers interest led learning doesn’t mean we wake up every morning wondering, “What will we do today?”  I shared our plans for the outside lessons and activities for the upcoming semester.  But some days we do wake up with a fairly open schedule – what do those days look like?


Monday we started with soccer because E has decided he wants to play goalie with his rec league team.  He’s been avoiding this position for the last several years, so I’m thrilled he is comfortable trying something new.  Since he is playing rec, they only practice once each week for a little over an hour.   We headed out to the soccer field and C and I took turns playing offense trying to score on E.  Once we were tired, C and I took some turns at goal as well.  It was nice to get the physical activity during the morning hours especially given that we had evening commitments. IMG_2421We took a short hike to look at Monarchs. There were a lot fewer than last week.  We pondered whether most of them had migrated away or they prefer evenings instead of morning.  I agreed to check the meadow during my evening walk.  Turns out it was probably a migration thing.

We read a bit about ancient Greece early in the day to prepare for our presentation at Geography Club. We spent some time during the evening watching a documentary from PBS called Sinking Atlantis to supplement what we learned about the ancient Minoans. I learned all sorts of fascinating stuff about the eruption of the volcano Thera and the decline of the Minoans.

We did a bit of grammar and writing.  We try to do a few lessons like that each week.  It’s a bit like mopping floors or cleaning toilets.  It’s that small bit of life that isn’t necessarily fun, but if you keep up with it isn’t that bad either.  The short and easy writing assignment ended up requiring looking up Arctic Terns and Woodpeckers, so C could be sure he was getting his facts right.

Somewhere along the way we had the globe out and there was a comment about the tilt of the earth that concerned me.  I thought perhaps one of the boys wasn’t understanding that the tilt was constant, so one kid was the sun and I circled around him with the globe reviewing the seasons.  Turns out he understood that just fine – what he was wondering was if the earth had the same tilt during ice ages.  Off we went to read about the cycle of the earth’s tilt and the factors that cause ice ages.  We watched some videos of Pangea separating which morphed into catching up on “It’s Okay to Be Smart” videos.

It was FLL day so we spent a couple of hours with the team going over missions and rules and talking about trash.

The remaining hours of the day were spent listening to the current audiobook, some while simultaneously playing computer games like Terraria and Kerbel Space.

So that’s what an interest led day looks like when your morning plan looks like – get exercise, prep for Geography Club, do some writing and maybe math.

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Summer “School”

Have you ever watched a group of interest led homeschoolers when they are asked if they are on summer vacation?  They look so confused.  Yes, no, sort of, does it matter?

We are on summer “schedule”.  We’re learning and reading and having fun.  The only thing really different about summer schedule is grammar lessons are completely set aside and we take time to enjoy the company of friends who only have summers off.  We also take advantage of good weather and summer camp opportunities.

So what have we being doing with our summer freedom?

Water BirthdayWe hosted a birthday party.  I love having older kids who are capable of planning and executing a large part of the party.  E designed his own invitations and the boys planned out what games they wanted to play.  Mostly it was just about water guns, water balloons, and jumping on the trampoline.  We also pulled out the “rocket launcher” which is a device that sends 2 liter bottles 30 feet in the air.  The boys all had a great time.  Boys don’t require fancy decorations, they just want to play.

We attended the Unschoolers Waterpark Gathering (UWG).  One of the things my kids missed when we switched to homeschool was having Field Day.  UWG is sort of like a Field Week.  The organizers do a terrific job creating fun events like Glow in the Dark Capture the Flag,  Nerf Guns Wars, and Minecraft Fun Shops.  The Skill Toys Fun Shop was really cool.  There were demos of unicycles and jumping stilts, as well as lessons in juggling and lessons with juggling sticks and diabolo juggling yoyos. One afternoon there was a Kids’ Marketplace.  The kids were encouraged to bring items to sell, no outside vendors.   My boys sold some old Star Wars toys and purchased toy bows and arrows and jousting sticks made from duct tape, pool noodles, and pvc.  The creativity on display at the Marketplace was amazing!  There are some very talented young artists out there.   The night of the talent show we saw some amazing performances.  There were discussion panels for parents.  Mostly I enjoyed hanging out with the other parents.  The thing that made the biggest impression on me during the week was how much trust existed between parents and kids.  It is hard to describe, but it was so enjoyable to be around a group of parents and kids who are confident about who they are.

IMG_1952We made our yearly summer trip to visit family.  My niece recently visited the now closed Missouri State Penitentiary and wanted to share the experience with her cousins.  My mom’s husband spent many years working maintenance at the prison and my husband’s cousin and her mom were guards there.  It was an interesting and sobering experience.  We did some landscaping for my mom, attended a high school graduation party for my nephew, and spent a day playing with cousins at the waterpark.  Waterpark day was chilly.  It ended up warming up in the afternoon, but we had the place pretty much to ourselves.

Airport and Blue Rock Station

Field Trips

We visited Blue Rock Station which is a homestead dedicated to environmentally friendly living.  Several building techniques are employed in the outbuildings while the main house is an earth-ship design constructed from recycled tires.  It was a great lesson in sustainability.

Cleveland Hopkins Airport – We visited the Fire Department.  It was interesting to see the specialized firetrucks and meet the bomb sniffing dog.  We also visited the operations tower.  We were a little disappointed we didn’t get to visit baggage sorting but such is life.

Pottery Collage

We took some pottery lessons and would like to add more of those to our fall schedule.  The boys also did an archery camp.  It was a big hit and we are hoping to find a way to work some more bow time into our schedule.

In our “free time” we’ve had time to visit with friends, go swimming, play in creeks, and play computer games.  Our car time has been consumed with listening to the Eragon series.

While I’m excited about all the good stuff fall will bring, I’m glad we took time to relax and enjoy summer.



Today was a day of celebration!IMG_1753

Way back in March I shared this photo.  I was full of optimism that we would construct catapults for Engineer’s Week. DSC_5245

Our planning stage was very short therefore I failed to grasp what the final size of the catapults.  I didn’t realize catapults this size require outdoor construction.  Since we live in northern Ohio the weather was at first too cold and then too rainy.Catapult finished

We’ve worked on them here and there and the weather has FINALLY warmed up.  We’ve learned lots along the way, such as the difference between drill bits for concrete and wood, how to use a sawsall, and that it is ridiculously HARD to keep the drill straight when drilling through a round piece of pipe.IMG_1858

Today we had nice weather AND the day at home, so we sat down and studied how our model trebaucht works. The boys fashioned a sling from parachute cord and an old t-shirt.  IMG_1863Then we started slinging water balloons across the yard.  We all felt so accomplished to finally have an operational catapult.

Now we are learning how to make adjustments to get better repeatability. We  still have a second catapult to finish but it will go much easier as we have a new jig to help with drilling the holes.

If you are interested in doing a similar project we found the instructions in The Art of the Catapult.  I found the instructions a little unclear about where the bolts went, so contact me if you would like my marked up diagram.

Weekly Wrap-up – FABulous field trips and other creative pursuits

FIELD TRIP!!  Field trips are one of my absolute favorite things about homeschooling.  Field trips, individualized learning, treating kids with respect, building projects, time in nature – they are all my favorite things.

Last Friday we went to University of Pittsburgh to check out their Human Engineering Research Laboratories.  They work with the Veterans’ Administration to develop better assistive devises like wheelchairs, prosthetics, and orthotics.   It was great career exposure for the kids.  The combination of engineering with making a real difference in other people’s lives is a very appealing concept.

It just so happened there was also a place across the street called TechShop.  They were offering tours so we stopped in along with some friends who were also on the aforementioned HERL tour.  What a cool place!  It’s a FAB Lab on steroids.  They have the typical laser cutter/engravers, 3D printers, vinyl cutters and wood shop, but they also have a water jet cutter, a powder coat paint booth, welding, and CNC machines.  They also have a great textile station with embroidery and screen printing and a computer workshop area.   Check out the website and take a tour if you happen to live near one.

IMG_1835After lunch we headed over to the Carnegie Science Center.  It was such a short visit we only had time for the sports area, the traveling H2O exhibit and the shuttle lift.

IMG_1847This week we had the opportunity to attend a Cleveland Orchestra Education Concert.  The orchestra does a great job selecting the music for these concerts.  This one started with the Imperial March from Star Wars then moved on to classical composers like Vivaldi and Bach.  They also did a couple of American Jazz pieces before concluding with a part of the E.T. score.  The boys are really so so about going to the orchestra, but I just adore the chance to hear the orchestra perform.  I also love the architecture of Severance Hall.

After the performance we had lunch with friends and went through the “swords and knights” exhibit at the art museum.  We also went through the modern art section which is always fun.  The art museum is free which makes it easy to just pop in for a few minutes.  After the art museum we headed over to the Natural History Museum for about an hour before heading home so we could get ready for swim lessons.

Going on field trips means lots of time in the car so we listened to the first book of the Redwall series by Brian Jacques.  The story was very action packed and exciting.  If it had been a print edition, I would say it was a real page turner.  We listened to several hours of the story on Saturday and Sunday as well.  We will certainly be listening to more of the Redwall series during car trips this summer.

IMG_1857We had some good weather this week, which allowed us to work on our catapults.  They are almost complete, but on hold again while E is away on a camping trip this weekend.

Having the chance to visit so many creative spaces this week has been really invigorating.  I’m really looking forward to working on some creative projects this summer.

What fun projects are you planning for summer?

Weekly Wrap-Up WUH

Real Spring

IMG_1795We were walking in the woods last week when we heard them, spring peepers and wood frogs.  It’s one of the most beautiful sounds on earth.  When the peepers and wood frogs emerge and sing their mating calls, a person can’t help but feel the hope and renewal of spring.

IMG_1803As we were walking my son said, “There should be two first days of spring.  The equinox and the day the peepers come out.”

It doesn’t look like much.  The trees are still bare.  Only the earliest plants are pushing their way up through the soil.  BUT the air is warming up.


Many of the local park services are hosting night hike visits to vernal pools.  During night hours the spring peepers can be absolutely deafening.  It’s amazing to me that a creature barely larger than my thumbnail can emit such piercing call.  For just a few days the yellow spotted salamanders come above ground to mate in the pools before heading back to their holes for another year.


We found this super cool fossil next to a creek the other day.  The shell filled with mud and sand that solidified.  It’s amazing the things we find and the deep learning that takes place when we have time to just explore.



Keeping our Sanity in the Cold – A Weekly Wrap-up

How does a homeschool family keep their sanity during the harsh snow filled days of winter?  Read on to find out what we’ve been doing to stave off the winter blues!

It’s been COLD.  Bitterly cold.  Freeze the snot in your nose while you take out the trash cold.  Locally we’ve set records for the coldest temperature on a particular date.  Today the high was 19 F and it felt like a break.

So what’s a homeschooling family to do with all this cold weather?  Lots of school work apparently.  This is our highest monthly total school hours for this year.  The boys have been book worms this month really upping their hours.  That doesn’t mean we’ve just stayed home and done school work though.

Winter hike - Creek and Snow

We still went for a hike this week.  We followed coyote tracks through the woods which was pretty cool. We also found an intersection with deer tracks.  E is participating in the “What Went By Event” in the Upper Elementary Science Olympiad, so we’ve been taking every opportunity to find animal tracks in the snow.  The squirrels have been kind enough to leave tracks on the back porch, while a bunny regularly leaves prints as he hops down our sidewalk.


It’s important to get exercise too.  As a treat we took the boys to a mountain bike park.  It was fun to be back on our bikes even though it was -2 F outside.  It’s nice to go late in the evening, because there aren’t many other customers making it possible to really ride your own pace without worry.

E handfeeding birds

One of the local nature centers encourages hand feeding birds.  E was amazingly patient and stood still for about half an hour in the cold.  He was rewarded with birds coming to his hands 30 times.  It was such a delight to watch his expressions.

C wind testing house constructions

Our local science center is hosting Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition.  It’s a fun traveling exhibit.  There was a house of brick, wood, straw test station that the boys enjoyed.  The exhibit also had tons of other fun stuff.  The final section included building sleds, boats, and parachutes using duct tape.  Of course after our visit the boys used up all the duct tape in the house and we had to buy more.  E made a rather impressive boat out of popsicle sticks and duct tape.

Over the last two weeks we’ve also gone to a community theatre production, visited the Jewish Heritage Museum, gone to a professional theatre production, attended zoo class, and met with our Science Olympiad partners.  Soccer and scouts were on the list too.

I don’t like our schedule to get too crowded and despite the long list of activities it has all felt very manageable.  This year I think we are finally managing to get the right amount of physical activity including outside time.  It also helps that the kids are getting older and have stronger immune systems (or maybe we’ve just been lucky this winter).

I almost forgot.  E’s FLL team did a segment on the local news along with three other teams from the area.  E’s team in purple is in two of the segments.  A special thanks to the building custodian who came in on a snow day to make sure the building was open for the kids.

On the bookshelf:  Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan

In the kitchen: Pulled pork sliders (although we do a lot of vegetarian dishes, during the winter we all crave meat), Spinach enchiladas, Seared Chicken Breast with Balsamic Grapes, Sautéed Spinach, and Nutty Bulgur (this is a “food bag” from my husband’s work, they do all the prep work and I just cook and assemble. Yeah!)

Hope you are having a great week!  What are you doing to stave off the winter blues?

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I want an Orrery


This week at the Natural History Museum I noticed a display case for the first time.  POCKET SUNDIALS!  What a cool invention!  All the one pictured here include a compass for proper alignment. We’ve heard a lot about pocket watches, but I’d never given any thought to their predecessor.  One of the pocket sundials was calibrated to three different latitudes, so it could be used throughout Europe.

It’s always amazing to think about the intersection of science and technology with history.  Whether it’s the telegraph and railroad creating a war time advantage,  vaccines shifting population demographics, or computers making space travel possible, technology and history are fantastically intertwined.


Isn’t the orrery cool?  The time and workmanship that goes into making those is just amazing.  I would like to own something like this, but they are so expensive and typically rather large.  Other women want designer handbags, I want an orrery.


Science Olympiad Update:

What Went By? – E and his partner for the event attended a clinic put on by the local park system.  We also met at the Natural History Museum and spent some time looking at the display of local animals and talking about habitats and habits.  We borrowed a kit that had life size stamps of front and hind prints from the museum.  I think the scat identification might be difficult, but I think at least some of the questions will be about making observations about the scat without actually narrowing it to one species.  The scat of a grazing herbivore will be different from the scat of an omnivore.  Predator scat may contain bone fragments.  Some of the tracks can be narrowed done to 3 or 4 local animals and then other clues will provide more information.  Muskrats and otter slides might look similar but we might expect chewed up twigs and cattails with a muskrat.  E also worked on spelling animal names this week.

Not much happened with the Mousetrap car this week.  We need to take it up to the school to test it out.  I just haven’t been in the mood to get out in the cold.

Aerodynamics – Observations this week – (1)  It is hard for 10 and 11 year old boys to throw gently.  When throwing gliders asking them to throw in slow motion seemed to help. (2)  Those old Pamper Chef scrapers work great for smoothing airplane folds.  (3) Testing gliders is hard – big spaces and high ceilings are necessary.  (4) Making designs of their own and testing them is really part of the fun of this.

Simple Machines – The mom of C’s partner is doing the coaching for this event.  I’m impressed with what they’ve learned over the last few weeks.  They know their simple machines and are really learning a lot about calculating forces and mechanical advantage.


We went to see a local production of Shrek the Musical on Sunday.  A friend of ours has a lead role in the play and lots of kids we know are in the production.  The cast did a spectacular job.

I attended a meeting this week with a group that has formed to promote FIRST LEGO League in our area.  It is a really great bunch of people and I’m excited to see what we can do to get more kids involved in robotics.  When I asked my own kids about career paths this week, they both expressed interest in programming.  E  lists his top pick as mechanical engineering and C is considering wildlife biology or bio-medical animal science with programming as a hobby.   I don’t know if bio-medical animal science is really a thing, but I figure as much as people love their pets, it will be by the time he is in college.  He also thinks he might want to do some combination of food and science like that guy that cooks steaks in a water bath (sous-vide)  and has the huge cookbook (Nathan Myhrvold).   It’s always interesting to check in on the career aspirations of kids.

I’ve mentioned I developed a simple spreadsheet to track our school time.  In Ohio part of our homeschool notification involves signing a paper stating we will spend 900 hours covering a list of subjects.  That is approximately the amount of time children in elementary school spend in class each year.  I’m so glad I started tracking our time.  This week we reached 800 hours for the school year.  I can’t tell you how excited I am about that.  It’s not like anything will change when we hit 900 hours.  I’m just happy to know we are spending so many hours on learning activities even though our school time is relaxed.

This week I’m including my “What’s for Dinner?” list.  I’m always looking for ideas myself and I was reading an article this week about parents feeling guilty because even though they are cooking it doesn’t fit their ideal.  I want you to know that it’s okay to keep dinner simple.  Some of the dinners I listed took less than 15 minutes of prep and cook time.  The pulled pork dinner was probably the easiest, since it took about 3 minutes to put in the crockpot.  Raw carrots, broccoli, apple slices, and strawberries are about as fancy as we get for sides.

 What’s for Dinner?

Blackeyed Pea Dip

Salmon Mac (super quick and easy)

Corn Dog Muffins ( I know, I know, it embarrasses me that I allow any hot dogs in the house, but C loves these.  Corn Muffin mix with a 1/4 of a hot dog stuck in the middle.  I buy the preservative free ones but still.)

Pulled Pork Sliders w/ Sweet Potato Fries and Baked Beans

Butternut Ravioli

Butternut and Black Bean Enchiladas

Hope you have a great week!

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A Homeschool Day in the Life


9:00 AM  The boys play and watch some videos.  I enjoy some quiet time to myself.

9:45 AM I decide the weather is too gorgeous to risk waiting until the afternoon to go skiing so we pack up and head for the hill.  My plan is to ski until 12:30 and then head home for lunch.

12:00 PM – C is really making progress on the easy hill.  E and I do a few runs on the intermediate hill.  We are all cold, but no one is ready to go home.  We decide to have lunch at the ski hill then do a few more runs.

12:45 PM – Just a couple more runs and we will be ready to go.

1:15 PM – Just a couple more runs.

2:15 PM – We finally leave the ski hill.  It really was a beautiful day to be outside.  I feel so invigorated.  This is our first year skiing so the thrill of learning a new skill is great.


2:50 PM – We finally start our school work for the day.  First up is math because that is always a good way to get started.

3:35 PM – Grammar – What is there to say about grammar?  Not fun but necessary.

4:30 PM – 5:00 PM Reading – C reads about Stingrays and E reads a book about animal tracks.

5:00 – 5:45 PM Tracking game – The boys are competing in a Science Olympiad event with a homeschool group and E is on the “What Went By” team.  Today we played a memory game to hone our skills matching animals to their tracks.

6:00 PM Out to dinner to celebrate an accomplishment for one of the kids.

7:45 PM E is folding airplanes to test for Science Olympiad while C plays LEGOs.

This was an atypical day.  We don’t normally blow off school on a Monday morning to go skiing.  Sunshine is a pretty rare event this time of year, so I’m so glad we can take advantage of our flexibility to enjoy it.  We still achieved 3 hours of core subjects.

One of the common questions our public school friends have is, “Do you get snow days?”  Our answer is always yes and no.  If the weather is truly bad we stay home and do our workbook type stuff and read.  If we have a beautiful day we take a few hours and enjoy the snow.