Community Service Day

If you are ever want to be inspired, you should spend some time hanging out with a FIRST LEGO League (FLL) team.  I’ve written several times about how these kids do an amazing job coming up with solutions to problems.  This year the challenge is Trash Trek.  Our FLL team has spent the last few months learning about trash, recycling and ways we can Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

TrunkChallengeMonday the kids had a day off school and decided to spend it doing community service.  Our first project of the day was to contribute to the reuse portion of the cycle by filling the trunk with clothes and shoes for the Goodwill.  I’m not sure what the donation receiver thought when five boys spilled out of my car.  She was gracious enough to give us a quick tour and we looked around the retail store for several minutes.

CollectingTrashatLakeErieDuring the course of our trash research we were shocked to read how much micro plastic is in Lake Erie.  Since we live near Cleveland, we decided to investigate ourselves.  Getting out on the lake and collecting samples of micro plastics wasn’t practical, so we decided to conduct a beach clean up.

We took a couple of clip boards with survey information by the Great Lakes Alliance, trash bags and gloves, and we headed for the beach.

IMG_2558Probably because of the time of year (mid October) the beach looked pretty clean from a distance.  We found mostly bits of plastic, bottle caps, straws, and a few plastic bottles.  By far the most common items found were cigarette tips and small bits of plastic.  We only stayed about an hour but collected 2.5 kg of trash.

BlueTrashScorpionWe thought it would be fun make art out of our litter finds.  During the summer months we would probably find more litter in the form of bottles and caps that would make better “art”, but the boys really seemed to enjoy figuring out things to construct.  A little spray paint really helped.

TrunkChallengeOverwriteThe LEGO Dragons are extending a “Trunk Challenge” to our friends, family, and readers.  Fill your trunk with donations for your favorite charity.  Donate.  Then post in the comments to let us know you took the challenge.  Issue your own challenge to your friends and family.

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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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4 Reasons Kids Really Like FIRST LEGO League


First let me say congratulations to the RoboTigers!  They had a great showing at their regional tournament and they are moving on to districts!  They won awards for Robot Design and the Regional Ambassodor Award for their work telling other kids about FLL.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is a great program designed to get kids interested in STEM activities and careers.  The entire FIRST program spans kindergarten through 12th grade with the FLL portion geared toward kids 9-14.

Each year the competition centers around a new theme.  This year the theme is Nature’s Fury – Prepare. Stay Safe. Rebuild.  Teams chose a community and a specific natural disaster the community faces.  The teams researched the problems people in the community face and came up with an innovative solution to help the community prepare, stay safe, or rebuild after natural disasters.  The teams are also expected to share their ideas with the people they want to help.

This summer some members of the RoboTigers were caught outside during a tornado warning with only a pavilion for shelter, so they decided to help their community better prepare for tornadoes.  The team researched tornadoes by skyping with a meteorology grad student, emailing a professor studying tornado safety, and reading about research regarding helmet use in tornadoes.  They also surveyed kids in their community and kids from Oklahoma to find out what they knew about tornadoes and tornado safety.  From their research they learned that most injuries in tornadoes are caused by debris.  They decided to create a portable Debris Protection System.


They designed an experiment to test the suitability of different materials.  Then they designed a few Debris Protection Systems using bike helmets, safety glasses, gloves, and “leather” capes.


They presented the Debris Protection System at a city council meeting and at a Cub Scout  Meeting.

The other portion of the FLL competition is the Robot Game.  I’m sharing a short 2:30 video of the RoboTigers at competition.  Not everything went correctly that day.  Sometimes that is just the way things work, slight variations in the table or mat between home and competition can make a difference.   For a complete overview of missions in this years robot game you can check out the official 28 minute video.

So what do the KIDS really like about FLL?  I asked the RoboTigers to tell me their favorite thing(s) about FLL.

1. It’s FUN.  They have a great time together as a team.  When they are really putting in the final push to get ready for a tournament they frequently eat meals together and have plenty of time to goof around.  Another nice aspect is the team stays together year after year.

2. Programming.  The RoboTiger team makes sure all the kids participate in programming the robot.  They really enjoy the sense of accomplishment when their mission works.  There is something really satisfying about making a robot do what you want it to do.

3. The Robot Game – The tournament atmosphere is really fun and high energy.  The kids have fun building the props for the missions and nicknaming the characters.  They enjoy planning the missions, running the programs and designing the attachments.

4. Designing an Actual Prototype – They enjoy the chance to come up with real world solutions.  This year they were able to develop a complete Debris Protection System and spread awareness that wearing a helmet during a tornado can save your life.  FIRST provides a great opportunity for kids to have their ideas heard and respected.

If you have a son or daughter you think might be interested in FLL stay tuned.  I’m working on more posts – including how to start a team and the aspects of FLL parents and coaches really appreciate.

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Favorite Science Unit Studies of 2013

I love looking back at all the stuff we do in a year.  As I sat down to write this post I thought, “We really haven’t done much science since school started.”  I guess I forgot just how long some of these studies lasted.

Vernal Pool Collage

This past spring we heard the spring peepers calling late one afternoon and it started a very lengthy study of vernal pools.  We learned a lot about spotted salamanders, spring peeper frogs, wood frogs, and caddisflies.  We had a great time visiting the same pools over and over to check the water levels and watch the changes over the seasons.  Frog Heaven: Ecology of a Vernal Pool  was a great book that helped us with this study.


2013 was the year of the salamander at our house.  Our night hike to the vernal pools introduced us to the spotted salamanders.  Then we found several baby (Northern Dusky?) salamanders  hanging out in a stream during a creek hike.  There was one amazing day in late May when we spotted 7 red-spotted newts and 2 northern two-lined salamanders during a single hike.  Each discovery prompted us to learn more about the salamanders we encountered.

Yellowstone Unit Study

Yellowstone Unit Study – Going to Yellowstone had been on my to do list for at least 15 years.  Seeing the mud pots and hot springs on tv, they seemed like something out of a science fiction film.  This fall we finally made the trip. There was so much to learn about the park before we went.  We studied the thermal features and learned about the super volcano that lies under the surface.  We learned about the wildlife we might encounter during our visit including wolves, bears, bison, coyotes and moose.  Our trip really enhanced our studies and gave our learning purpose.


Turns out our favorite animal from our Yellowstone trip was a pika we saw in Grand Teton.  Pikas are adorable mountain dwellers that pile up haystacks during the summer to eat during the cold winter months.  We had seen them in documentaries and when we heard their squeaking noise in a rocky mountain area we were able to spot this one.

Nature's Fury PicMonkeyFIRST LEGO League – Nature’s Fury Challenge – Over the summer E read several books and watched a variety of shows about different types of natural disasters including earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, tornadoes, and tsunamis.  Once the challenge was released his team selected tornadoes as the disaster they would study in depth.   E’s team skyped with a meteorologist about tornadoes and severe weather, conducted surveys of 3rd-6th graders about their tornado awareness, and e-mailed other experts in the field.    E spent quite a bit of time learning how tornadoes form in the atmosphere and finding out about the instruments scientist have used to study tornadoes over the years.


Jr. FIRST LEGO League – Disaster Blaster – Volcanoes.  C’s Jr. FLL team chose to study volcanoes.  Each team member learned about a specific volcano and gave a report to the team.  C read a few books about volcanoes and watched several documentaries as well as gathering information while we were in Yellowstone on vacation.  The team worked together to build a model of a volcano and nearby island.  There was so much to learn in this study.  We learned about magma, lava, pumice, and obsidian.  We learned about ash clouds, lahars, tectonic plates, and the Ring of Fire.  We found out about ways technology is helping scientists map volcanoes and predict eruptions.


Cold Weather Science:  This fall we did a short cold weather unit study.   We learned about snowflakes, icebergs, and glaciers as well as the insulating properties of fat.  They also chose to read more about polar animals.  Anytime we learn about the polar regions we do a quick review of the earth’s tilt and seasonal differences.

Nature's Fury Table

Computer Science: The boys are learning about computer science in a variety of ways.  We included some computer science in our “engineers week” last spring by playing around with Scratch and Light-bot.  Through his FLL team E has learned quite a bit about programming the Lego NXT robot and this summer both boys took a week long programming class through the local science center.  They worked through the lessons offered through the Hour of Code website during Computer Science Education Week.

Zoo Class Collage

Zoo Classes:  My boys love to learn about animals and we learn a tremendous amount of world geography through animal habitats.  This year we were incredibly lucky to have the chance to attend zoo classes.  These have been great!  The boys are so excited to learn more about the behind the scenes operations of the zoo.  I enjoy touring the zoo with E and C while they tell me new and interesting facts about the zoo and the animals.

Not all of our science learning is neatly contained.  In fact most of it probably isn’t.   The boys are always watching informative shows from PBS, Discovery, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian Channel.  We celebrate the beginning of the school year by launching a solar bag.  Finishing a workbook earns a trip to the science center or children’s museum.  Reading time is filled with non-fiction books.  It is fairly common to find E watching shows about military history.  I had never considered how much science and engineering a kid could learn from military history; but military uses lead to development of new technologies, which then become part of civilian life.

What did you enjoy learning with your kids this year?








5 Reasons to Teach Programming

I still remember the very first computer program I wrote.  Back in 6th grade, I programmed an Apple IIe to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  It probably took all semester to complete and I’m not even sure there were any graphics to go with it.  I couldn’t wait to share it with  my parents on parents night.

Mindstorm NXT

This week, Dec. 9 -15,  is National Computer Science Education Week.  The challenge is for students across the nation to participate in an hour of code. Head over to and check out the tutorials.

MIT’s Scratch project is perfect for the holidays.  Program a snowman to sing jingle bells and send it to Grandma and Grandpa.  You can include a personalized message.

Here at my house, we will be spending several hours programming with the Lego Mindstorm NXT in preparation for E’s FIRST Lego League tournament this weekend.  Programming robots is particularly rewarding for kids because of the physical world interface.

If you need reasons to teach programming beyond the fact that most kids WANT to learn programming here are a few reasons:

1. Programming develops patience and resilience.  Troubleshooting and debugging are as much a part of programming as writing code.  Sure sometimes you might actually have everything work right the first time on a simple program, but most of the time there will be some bugs.  Finding errors and working them out is part of the challenge.

2. Programming teaches kids to break problems down into smaller more manageable steps.  This skill isn’t just useful in programming, but in most aspects of life. When writing a research paper or working on a team project, it’s essential to have an overall goal that is then broken down into manageable parts.  Those parts can then be worked on by different team members individually or in smaller groups.

3. Programming builds confidence.  Having a program work correctly is a very rewarding feeling, especially if you’ve been through a few rounds of troubleshooting.  Programming is a great opportunity to create a “safe fail” environment.  Many aspects of schooling teach us to be afraid of failure, there is one opportunity to get the “right” answer.  Programming provides an environment where failure is part of the process and resilience is rewarded.

4. Learning to program teaches kids to be producers not just consumers of technology.  It gives kids creative ways to express themselves.  It gives them ways to be in control of their world.

5. Programming rewards logical thinking.  Programming teaches essential skills used through out life.  Managing a large project and writing a program have a lot of similarities, both require a certain progression of steps with some elements being worked on simultaneously.


Will you participate in the Hour of Code?


World Class Challenge

Check out the FIRST Lego League challenge for 2014



The challenge is going to involve kids explaining how they need and want to learn!

I’m looking forward to hearing their voices!

I will do some posts come April 2014 on starting an FLL team.

FIRST Lego League qualifying tournaments will be going on for the next month so check your area.  Many events are open to the public.  Please contact a regional contact to ask about tournaments in your area.

Weekly Wrap-up – Pebbles of Encouragement

I’m happy to report that good attitudes are back again!  We hit a bit of a rough patch, but it was quickly fixed by pulling back out the pebble jars.DSC_0008The pebble jars remind me to offer positive encouragement.  I can’t tell you what a difference these jars make.  I remember to give praise and the boys feel like their actions are acknowledged.  We’ve made two rounds of filling the jar and it takes about 6 weeks or so.  The reward is simple, ice cream at a spectacular ice cream shop or a field trip.   The real reward is the daily difference.  You can check out how the system works in this post.

To add a little enthusiasm, I started the week with bagels for breakfast, a huge favorite for one of the boys.  When we’re in a funk, a little STEM learning always helps. We decided when our book work was done we would be “Food Process Engineers”.  We baked raspberry oatmeal bars and discussed what we would do differently if we were making big batches to sell at the store.

Our school friends had the day off Tuesday for election day.  Normally we would just have school but E’s FLL team met.  I didn’t tell the boys the public school had the day off until 10:45.  By that time we already had our reading and math done.  They enjoyed the FLL meetings and we spent part of the afternoon at the library.


Wednesday was a zoo class followed by barely making it home in time for Jr. FLL at our house.   I really enjoy coaching the Jr. FLL team.  There are 4 boys on the team including C.  This week two of the boys gave a report on a volcano.  They also worked in teams to start building a crane and a crazy floor machine.    Last week they chose LEGO Dragons as their team name.  Each of them is making a dragon for our team picture.

Here at Learning with Boys we love non-fiction science books.  E has read several books from the “Scientists in the Field” series.  The series has several different authors and is designed for kids 9-14.  Each book profiles a scientist and their work.  One of the things I like is that each scientist tells what inspired them as a kid to become a scientist.

We’ve been reading several books about life in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 – 1621.  This week we read “1621 A New Look at Thanksgiving”.  The pictures were very well done.  The boys enjoyed the book Samuel Eaton’s Day by Kate Waters describing a day in the life of a young boy in 1621.

It was a really good book week at our house.  We read an abridged version of Treasure Island.  E finished Mystery at Yellowstone National Park.   C read about marine mammals and dolphins.

DSC_0960-001We finally made time to take care of this situation. I pay very little attention to fashion, but I do want the their clothes to fit.  The pant situation had gotten so bad.  They had longer pants but they insisted those were too big in the waist. We spent the weekend trying to find another brand that was long enough, skinny enough, wind-resistant, and soft on the inside.  Finally we found one pair in a store and I was able to order more online.    Yeah!



Just a little more fall beauty before it’s gone for the year.


Do you have any favorite non-fiction book series?

How do you hit the “reset” button with your kids?

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STEM learning with FIRST

STEM Learning:  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math  – It’s easy to make sure we teach the science and math.  What about Technology and Engineering?   How do we teach those?

Senior Solutions Tables

Today I thought I would share a program that helps us incorporate STEM learning in our homeschool.

I have 8 and 10-year-old boys who are very into everything science and LEGO.  A little over a year ago the older requested a Mindstorm LEGO Robot.  Cool!  I thought he would make a few configurations and learn to make it do a few things.

Then a friend of mine told me about FIRST LEGO League (FLL) !  She even helped us find a team!  It’s like a sports team only more FUN!  Most of the parents don’t know much about what’s going on so they just do their best to cheer and be supportive.  The atmosphere of the events is very fun for the kids.


FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.  They have programs for kids from K – 12 so no matter what age your kids are you can find a program designed for them.

We had such a positive experience last year that I’m coaching a Jr.FLL team for my younger son this year.

Some of our favorite things about our FIRST LEGO League experience:

1. The TEAM – Our son had a great time being on the team with a friend and becoming friends with kids who were older than him.  It was great to have a team with so many similar interests.

2. The core values of FIRST reinforce many of the values we are teaching our kids.   The kids are judged not only on their robots, research and projects but on how well they display the core values.

3. Researching and thinking in innovative ways.  Research is such a great life skill and the kids learn it in such a fun way.  They aren’t just researching to write a paper like everyone else, they are working as a team to find a solution.  What are existing solutions?  What can we do better?

4.  The competitions are crazy fun and recognize achievement in multiple areas. The kids might dress up like knights or cows, wear weird hats, or hand out trinkets.  The judges and referees dress up.  Some teams had a team song, dance, or handshake. There isn’t just one team taking home an award.  At the FLL age approximately 1/3 of teams went home with an award.  Awards were given for how well the robot performed, quality programming, teamwork, professionalism, research, and innovative solutions.

5. Programming is challenging and fun.  It is so great to get all the bugs worked out and have your robot perform as expected.  The way the robot rounds are set up with a 2 1/2 minute time limit achieving a “perfect” score is impossible.  Teams must decide which points they will attempt and which ones are most repeatable.

Check out the overview of FLL offered at this link:


Remember you don’t have to know how to program to start a team!

I received no compensation for this post.  I’m simply a mom / coach who is enthusiastic about the opportunities the FIRST competitions give kids.

I’m ever so pleased to be sharing this post over at


Thank to Kris for providing the Homeschool Showcasewhere she spotlights all the encouraging, inspiring and just plain fun ways that homeschooling families live and learn together.