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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Toys that Teach Engineering

In a previous post I wrote about how my husband and I make math fun for our kids through everyday situations and games.  As Christmas starts to approach, I thought I would share some toys that introduce engineering concepts to kids through play.  Studies have shown that kids learn the best when play is a part of the learning process.  As I've watched my kids and nieces grow up, I've definitely seen how the studies are true.  Legos have taught my son to follow instructions in order to build a car, and he's learned to spell words through silly songs.  Below is a list of a few toys that introduce specific engineering concepts.  Some I've bought for gifts, some teach concepts I struggled with in college.  I am a firm believer that the more we expose our children to at a young age, the easier it becomes for them to learn the details when they're older.

Smithsonian Motor-Works:  I bought this as a gift for my niece and am soooo excited about it.  Basically she will get to build a simple 4 cylinder engine, which is pretty cool.  But then they take it a step further and make it battery operated so she can then see the engine move.  With the clear engine casing, I love the idea that she will see what move of us never do, namely the inside of an engine.  She'll get to see valves open and close, spark plugs fire and pistons drive the crankshaft.  While I'm sure she won't be all that interested it the names of all the moving parts, I can just imagine the fun she'll have putting it together, and  the excitement she'll feel when she sees all the parts moving.

Smithsonian Jet Works Working Jet Engine Model:  I almost bought this for my niece for Christmas.  Building the engine promotes problem solving skills, which is essential to being in a technical field.  While putting the engine together, the instructions teach about the different parts of the engine.  For example, instead of calling the "fan" a propeller, it correctly calls it a turbine. Reviews have also said the instructions make the assembler familiar with terms like combustion chamber, shaft, thrust, turbojet, and turboprop.  Really understanding the principles about these concepts is not that important as a child.  But just hearing them helps to become familiar with the terms, creating a natural comfort with them.  To me technical information is like learning a language.  The more often you hear it while growing up, the easier it is to understand as you get older.

Snap Circuits Alternative Energy Green:  In college I only took one class about electrical circuits, but when I tarted my first job, I quickly realized that electrical equipment ( and there for electrical systems) were everywhere.  I really wished that I ad learned more and better understood electrical principles better  Most of my career I had a fear/respect for electricity and those who worked on it.  But I know but as I asked my electrical counterparts more about what they did, the ess like magic it all seemed.  One f my coworkers showed me how electrical systems are very similar to fluid flow, and then it all started to click for me.  The thing is, I didn't realize this until almost 10 years in to my career.  I think that if I'd had toys more like this Snap circuited system, I would have had less fear of this discipline of engineering.  I gave a simpler one to my niece a couple of years ago, and she was able to complete it on her own and really enjoyed putting all the different circuits together and see different outcomes.  I thought the Alternative Energy package was neat because you can build several different types of circuits to explore alternative energy options.

K'NEX Education - Intro To Simple Machines: Levers and Pulleys:  In a previous post I talked about how I struggled with kinematics.  The first test in the class was all about pulleys and forces, and for some reason I was really confused by these concepts.  My classmates, on the other hand, found the concepts easy.  Of course, the majority of my classmates had played with legos, built with tinker toys, and worked on their cars in high school.  I truly believe that exposing kids to concepts of engineering early will prevent fear and help in understanding physics concepts.  So when I found this K'NEX pulleys and levers kit, I thought it was perfect to introducing kids to kinetic principles.  K'Nex also makes a kit that introduces kids to gears, K'NEX Education - Intro To Simple Machines: Gears.

Battat Take-A-Part 4X4:  My parents bought the Battat 4x4 for my son one Christmas.  He immediately took out the power tool, and started putting the truck together.  It took him a little while to figure out how to use the toy drill, but once he did he spent the next few hours assembling and disassembling the truck over and over again.  As an engineer, there are certain skills we are assumed to have once we have a job, but are not taught in school.  One of those skills, especially for a mechanical engineer, is familiarity with tools and assembling things.  From this toy my son learned that a switch controls the way the drill turns, that right secures the bolt, left loosens it, and there is a sequence to use when assembling and disassembling.  These are all skills I did not really learn (sadly), until I had my first internship.  Battat has a great selection of take apart toys, which includes the Battat Take-A-Part Roadster, Battat Take-A-Part Airplane, and Battat Take-A-Part Crane.



Wednesday, November 11, 2015

5 Simple Ways to Make Math Fun

Since both my husband and I are engineers, it is important to us that our kids do not develop a fear of math.  We want them to see math as a part of everyday life, and not a bad word.   Here are a few things we have done to encourage math:

  1. Count coins:  When my oldest was around 4, my husband started counting coins with him as a game.  He would lay a few coins out, then have my son count them.  He would then put another group of coins together in another pile and have my son count those.  Next he would put the coins together and ask how many there were now.  My son would count all the coins together, not realizing he was doing addition.  My husband would then tell my son to count out a certain number of coins from the pile, and put them aside.  Next he would then ask him to count what was left over: subtraction with a four year old!  My husband would continue to play this game with my son by increasing the amounts, and eventually seeing if he could say the left over amount in the piles without counting. 

  2. Count while reading:  There is a lot of focus on early literacy right now, but not much on early math skills.  A very simple way we incorporate math while reading is to count items on a page that we are reading.  For example, my youngest has a book he loves about a baby and mama bears' day.  On one of the pages, the bears are playing in a stream with fish.  After reading the page, I then ask him how many fish are there, and I count them while he points to each fish.  He can't really talk yet (he's not quite two), but has started to understand that when he points at the fish, mommy says something.

  3. Count at the grocery store:  My toddler is in that phase where he does NOT want to sit in a shopping cart. So one day he was throwing a fit while sitting in the cart because he did not want to be there.  I tried distracting him (ie stop the crying) with the apples I was picking out.  I would grab one, hand it to him, and then let him put the apple in the bag and say "1", then "2", and so on.  The crying stopped.  So I just kept letting him put fruit and vegetables into bags while counting, and our shopping trip went a little better. 
  4. Early Multiplication at the Grocery store:  As I'm sure most parents can attest to, the most painful errand with children is grocery shopping.  One particular painful grocery trip I had both of my kids, the toddler and my 5 year old.  The toddler was fine at the time, but my oldest was complaining about how bored he was (a pet peeve of mine).  So I started having him help me put fruit and vegetables in the bags and counting them, like I do with the toddler.  Then I would let him place the food on the scale, and ask him what it read.  On the items that cost $1 a pound, I would say "This fruit costs $1 a pound.  If we have 4 pounds, then how much do all the apples (for example) cost?". It took a little coaching the first time, but he eventually found the pattern, and was able to tell me 4 pounds of apples costs $4.  We play this game most times that we go grocery shopping together. 
  5. Allowance:  To be honest, we started giving our oldest an allowance out of frustration.  Around when he turned 5, every trip to the store turned into "can you buy me this, how about that?" So we decided to start giving him an allowance to show him if he buys everything he sees, money with run out.  But we were not just going to "give" him the money.  We decided on a list of chores we knew he could do, and told him if he completed these chores everyday, then on Saturday we would give him $5.  Below is the list of chores we gave him:
    • Put the pillows on your bed.
    • Clean up toys from your room and the rest of the house.
    • Put clothes in the hamper.
    • Set and clear the table.  Which is really just putting placemats, napkins, and utensils on the table. 
    • Cleaning his closet.
We also decide to have him keep a ledger for his allowance.  We started by counting all the coins and birthday money he had in his piggy bank, and wrote the total in a notebook.  Then each week we have our son bring us the notebook, and add he watches as we add the $5 to the ledger.  We've noticed two benefits from giving him an allowance.  First is the argument of whether we can buy him something at a store has stopped.  When we are at a store, and he asks us if he can have something, we tell him he can if he has his money.  And the asking stops.  Also, he has started understanding the concept of saving.  During a trip to the mall, we stopped at the Lego Store just to look around.  He of course saw a Jurassic World set he had to have.  We told him he could start saving his allowance to buy it, and that satisfied him.  So for the next few weeks, when we added the money to the ledger, we would also determine how much more he needed to save to get the Lego set.  Along with saving, he started finding toys he was willing to sell.  After about three months of saving, he finally had enough to buy the set he wanted.  But it didn't stop there.  Once we were at the store, my husband showed my son that for the same price of the Jurassic World set, he could buy 5 Lego racing sets.  We then let our son think about that for a little bit, and eventually he decided that he would rather have 5 Lego sets, than one.  We were fine with his decision either way, but were wanting to show him other options.

Those are just a few of the ways we show our kids that math is just a part of life, and is nothing to fear.  What kinds of ways do you show that math is a part of life?


Friday, November 6, 2015

Eliminating VOCs in My Home with Essential Oils

As I've spent more time at home, I've had more time to make my house reflect my family.  This has included doing some home decorating with lots of DIY projects.  You can check out my other blog Decorating My Home On A Budget to see some of my projects!  As I started making my home start to feel more like "us", the engineer side started to take over, and I started thinking about the health of our home.  I started looking into ways to reduce the amounts of chemicals in our house, and specifically volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  A VOC is a chemical with a low boiling point, and has adverse health effects.  They can be found in many household items such as cleaning supplies, glue, and even within our furniture.  Working in a chemical plant for part of my career, we were always conscious about the presence of VOCs, taking courses about how to handle them and the proper safety gear to wear them when working with them.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that, according to the EPA, VOCs are 10 times more prevalent in our homes than they are outdoors!  For more information about VOCs and their negative health effects, please see VOCs: What they're all about.  VOCs.  I came across an article that talked about replacing my plugins that made my house smell oh so good, with essential oils.  I love the smell of a clean house, and use plugins to keep the house smelling nice (a challenge with a dog, cat, and two young boys).  So I looked into finding essential oils, and found a friend who sells young Life essential oils. I ordered the Young Living Lavender Essential Oil - 5 ml because I thought it would be the nicest scent.  I've also listed some other recommendations of other oils at the end of this post.
Young Living Lavender Oil I chose
  1.  First I removed he wick from the bulb.  I had a little trouble getting it loose, unlike the tutorial said.  But I was eventually able to get it free by jamming a knife between the glass and plastic part of the wick, and working them apart.    


    2.   Next I rinsed the glass bulb out with water a couple of times, and ran water over the wick.  I then filled the bulb about a quarter full with lavender oil (I wanted to use as little of the oil as possible), and the rest with water.

  3.  I inserted the wick back into the bulb (it took a little work, but eventually went back in), twisted it back onto the diffuser, and plugged it into my wall!
Now my house smells lavender clean, and I don't have to worry that I'm slowly poisoning my family! 
Lets talk financials on this project.  Essential oils are not cheap, especially good ones.  I bought the lavendar for $26 for a 5ml bottle. If I used the entire bottle for my diffuser, then that would have been expensive!  But since essential oils are extremely concentrated, a little goes a long way.  Combining the oil with water, I was able to fill two bulbs, and I still have about half of the bottle left.  So that would make 4 full bulbs for $26, the same price I was paying at the store.
Here are some other fragrances I will be trying soon: