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Monday, December 28, 2015

An Explosive View of A Dinosaur!

In an earlier post I recommended a Battat take apart toys so kids become familiar with tools and assembling things.  Another toy I found that helps with the same skills is the Create a Dino triceratops.  We bought this totally out of chance at a Christmas shopping trip to Marshalls.  Our son LOVES triceratops, so we knew he would love it. 

And so arrives Christmas day, and as predicted, he loved it!  Not only was it a toy of his favorite dinosaur, but something he could use a "power" tool and build.  He opened the box and got to it.  First he started with disassembling the dinosaur using the provided drill.  He was doing pretty good, but at some point got stuck at removing the head.  This is the conversation I had with him:

     Me: Have you read the instructions?
     My son: *grabs the schematic in the picture. "Can you help me take off the head?"
     Me: "I don't think the head comes off"
     My son: "Yes it does, see" as he points to the part of the exploded view drawing that says it does..."

You see, unlike a Lego kit or other "follow the instructions" toys, this toy did not include step by step instructions on how to take apart the toy.  It simply provided a drawing (which you can see in the picture) of how to assemble the dinosaur.  In the engineering drafting world, this is called an exploded view of the drawing.  Usually these are provided to engineers and mechanics as an overall depiction of how to construct something (machinery, piping system, structures, etc.).  They are usually accompanied with detailed step by step instructions, because most people have difficulties reading these types of drawings and determining what to do first.  But kids are different.  They don't see that everything has to be done in the same sequential order all the time.  They don't know that this drawing should be difficult to read, so my 5 year old just saw it the same way he saw the instructions for his Lego; as the instructions on how to play with his toy. 

If triceratops is not your kid's favorite dinosaur, the toy  is also available as a tyrannosaurus rex and stegosaurus.

Enjoy watching your kid be an engineer!


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

10 Books that Inspire Kids to be Engineers

Since becoming a mother, I've been amazed at how quickly and easily kids learn. Its so much easier for my kids to learn something than me.  I have to be told several times, then read about it, then experience something to really learn it long term.  My kids on the other hand, they basically just need exposure to it and a little hands on example, and its embedded into their long term memory.  I started thinking I should start exposing them to engineering now, just to see what sticks.  But I wanted to bo0ks to be interesting as well.  I started looking, finding different books available at the library, and I came up with a pretty short list.  Below is a list of books that both introduce kids to engineering concepts, and teaches them how engineers think. 

1. If I Built a Car - written by Chris Van Dusen
This is a story about a boy who is telling is dad how he would improved his dad's car.  The improvements are fun, exciting, and useful!  I loved this book because this is what engineers do!  We are always looking for ways to improve what is already there.  Whether it be a new feature on a car or a more efficient way to make a diaper, engineers are always looking for ways to make the world easier, safer, and more efficient.

2.  Rosie Revere, Engineer - written by Andrea Beaty
The story of a little girl who wants to be an engineer, but becomes discouraged after failure.  The message of this story is so true to engineer.  Every engineer has faced failure at some point, whether in college or professionally.  The thing with engineering is that failure is part of the learning process, and only leads to better inventions!

3. Simple Machines (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) - written by D.J. Ward
This book is an introduction to engineering mechanics, and reminds me of the first topic in my engineering kinematics class.  It simply explains forces with toys and everyday items kids are familiar with, such as a baseball bat and seesaw!

4.Explore Simple Machines!: With 25 Great Projects (Explore Your World)   written by Anita Yasuda
This book explores many of the same simple machines from the "Let's-Read-and-Find-Out" book, but includes hands on experiments, which will help with deeper understanding.  Teaching the concepts with a book and then hands on example is the same way concept were taught to me in college.  Most of my classes had a lecture and accompanying lab to cement the concepts with concrete examples.

5.  Step-by-Step Science Experiments in Energy (Janice Vancleave's First-Place Science Fair Projects) - written by Janice VanCleave
Twenty-two easy experiments demonstrate various engineering concepts.  Many classes I took studying engineering were about different forms of energy.  Through the simple experiments, kids will become familiar with the various types of energy, and start to understand some of the terminology that comes along with them.

6.  Janice VanCleave's Energy for Every Kid: Easy Activities That Make Learning Science Fun - written by Janice VanCleave
This book includes all of the same  experiments as the previous book, but includes a more in depth explanations of the energy form being explored.  I personally prefer this book over the previous Vancleave book, because I like understanding the concept as much as possible before the experiment to I know what I need to learn from the experiment.  But for those who just want to see a cool experiment, the "Step-by-Step Science Experiments in Energy" book is for you!

7.  What Is the World Made Of?: All About Solids, Liquids, and Gases (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) - written by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld
The building block of the world, and material science, is learning about matter and how it behaves.  All matter can exist is three phases; solid, liquid, or gas.  All matter has different temperatures at which they exist in these different phases, but all matter can exist either as a solid, liquid, or gas.  This book explores phase changes by explaining how water goes through phase changes.

8.  Forces Make Things Move (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) - written by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
About half of mechanical engineering courses are about forces.  Forces in college were introduced to me as non-moving, or static, forces, then moved onto moving, or dynamic, forces.  This book introduces the basic principles of studying forces.  It first introduces Newton's three laws of motion, in familiar terms a child can understand.  For example, the first law of motion is:  An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.  The book explains the first law by saying "Nothing starts moving until it is pushed or pulled.  If you don't push your toy car, it just sits there - unless something else pushes it (outside force)", and "Once you are running, only another forces can stop you.". These are very simple, uncomplicated terms that children can play with and understand.  Along with Newton's laws, the book also introduces friction and gravity.

9.  Gravity Is a Mystery (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) - written by Franklin M. Branley
Gravity is the basis to understanding forces on earth, and "Gravity is a Mystery" provides a great introduction as to what gravity is.  The book begins by explaining where gravity comes from, and that gravity exists between any two objects.  It also explains the relationship between the size of a planet and its gravitational force. 

10. How People Learned to Fly (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) - written by Fran Hodgkin

Our house is near an airport, and every time a plane takes off or lands, my sons are mesmerized.  My five year old usually asks how a plane flies, but our car does not.  This book is a great introduction to the process it took for early inventors to learn about drag and lift.  It also introduces the use of engines on modern planes to create more lift, enough lift to carry multiple passengers.  Not a lot of detail is given, but this book will familiarize kids with the concepts of flight.

So what do you think of the list?  Are there any I have left off?  I would love to see more fiction books for kids that teach about engineering, science, and math.  If you know of any, please send me an email at!


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Creating a Healthier Home - What I am Cleaning with Now

In my last post I shared what I found when I looked into the ingredients of my household cleaners.  I was really surprised by how much information was not provided, as well as how much affect they had specifically on the respiratory system.  When I started investigating alternatives, I turned to people I trusted.  I found several seemingly great options, but needed to determine what criteria I should use to access them.  That’s when I found an article by OCA that lists specific criteria for choosing cleaning products:

1.    Stay away from labels stating “Danger”, “Warning” or “Caution”.  These warnings provide some indication of a product's toxicity. Products labeled Danger or Poison are typically most hazardous; those bearing a Warning label are moderately hazardous, and formulas with a Caution label are considered slightly toxic.

2.    Look for ecological claims that are specific. For example, "biodegradable in 3 to 5 days" holds a lot more meaning than "biodegradable," as most substances will eventually break down if given enough time and the right ecological conditions. And claims like "no solvents," "no phosphates," or "plant-based" are more meaningful than vague terms like "ecologically-friendly" or "natural."'

3.    When ingredients are listed, choose products made with plant-based, instead of petroleum-based, ingredients.

The two options I decided to look into were:
White Distilled Vinegar:  My mother used vinegar for years to clean EVERYTHING!  She would dilate it with water (1/2 vinegar, 1/2 water), and use it to clean windows, countertops, and the bathroom.  If you can get over the smell of vinegar (or add an essential oil to mask the smell), it is a great inexpensive, non-toxic cleaner.  The only down side to vinegar is that it is acidic and will breakdown sealants over time.  So even though I couldn't use vinegar as an option for my kitchen, I continued to investigate it based on the three criteria given by OCA: 
1.    No warnings on the label.
2.    Though the label on my bottle of vinegar did not explicitly state it, I did a little google search and found that white vinegar is biodegradable within 2 to 3 days.
3.    White distilled vinegar can be made from various sources including malt, maize (corn), and petroleum.  I’ve used Heinz White Vinegar Distilled - 128 oz , which is made out of corn, and a gallon only costs $10! 

Basic H by Shaklee – A friend of mine introduced me to Shaklee products, and to be honest I was a little skeptical at the beginning.  I had used other off the shelf “green” products before, and they not only cost more than what I was already using, they didn’t seem to work as well either. But since Basic H was highly recommended, I decided to look into it.  What
drew me to Basic H is that it is sold as a concentrate for only $8.  You do not use it in the concentrated form, but in a diluted form, depending on the application.  For example, if you would a formula strong enough to clean windows and glass, only add two drops of Basic H into a 16 oz full spray bottle of water.  If you want a general cleaner (like for countertops), add a ¼ tsp to a bottle full of water.  For a stronger cleaner, add 1 ½ tsp to a bottle full of water.  I assessed Basic H in its concentrated form, but you must keep in mind that diluting with water also lowers the toxicity of a substance.  Here is my assessment of concentrated form of Basic H according the OCS criteria:

1.    The bottle of Basic H has a Caution label which states “Concentrate may cause eye irritation. Avoid eye and prolonged skin contact.  Wash thoroughly after handling.  Contains surfactants.”
2.    The label states that Basic H concentrate is biodegradable and contains no phosphates.
3.    Though the ingredients to Basic H are not listed on the website or bottle, a quick email to my friend gave me the following information:
“Basic H is 99.95% all natural and made from:
·         Water-pretty benign
·         Alkyl Polyglucoside (from corn & coconut) – according to Chemir, this is a environmentally-friendly surfactant (stain lifter) made from plant oils, such as corn and coconuts.  They are “highly biodegradeable”.
·         Ethyoxylated Fatty Alcohol (also known as AEs) (from coconut) – this is another surfactant.  There is another blog article I found that lists this chemical as developmental reproductive toxic and cancerous.  Yet my research did not find any of this information.  The MSDS did not list it as carcinogenic (cancer causing).  Also, I found a study by the Human & Environmental Risk Assessment (HERA) that found that there is no evidence that this substance is genotoxic, mutagenic, or carcinogenic.  No adverse reproductive or developmental effects were observed either.  The study also stated that ethyoxylated fatty alcohols are irritating to eyes and skin, but that the severity of irritation is less the more it mixes with water.  The article even states “skin contact…where the products are diluted are not a concern as AEs are not expected to be irritating to the skid at in-use concentrations”.  The study concluded with stating that “the use of AE in cleaning products is safe and does not cause concern with regard to consumer use”.
·         Xanthan Gum (from vegetables) – used as a thickening agent, commonly used in salad dressings.  It is produced from corn, soy, or wheat.
·         Methyl Chloro Isothiazolinone - biodegradable preservative.  Since all the ingredients are derived from organic substances, a preservative is needed so the solution does not chemically break apart before being used.
So what am I using now?  Both!  I primarily use the Basic H and water mixtures since they do not affect sealants.  I bough Basic H from my friend, Mary Bias, a Shaklee representative, in a "Get Clean Kit" which came with three spray bottles and other cleaning products.  But I still use good old fashion vinegar to remote pet odors and stains.  When it comes to cleaning up after my pets, I use what I have known to always work.

I am interested in learning what other safe cleaning products are out there!  If you have products you would like ne to investigate, leave me a comment or email me at


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Creating a Healthier Home - What am I cleaning with?


In an earlier post, I wrote about reducing the amount of VOCs in our home by replacing chemical fragrances with essential oils. To continue to improve the health of my home, I started looking at the cleaning supplies I was using.  I had heard from friends that some cleaning products could adversely affect the health of my family.
I decided to investigate three of the cleaners I use the most, which was my window cleaner, my stone and steel cleaner, and the bathroom cleaner.  I started my investigation by turning the bottles over to see what the ingredients were.  Here's what I found:
Window Cleaner
  • Solvents -liquids that can dissolve another substance, like grease, oil, or paint
  • Surfactants - compounds that separate lower the surface tension between two substances.  They are basically your "stain lifters".
  • Ammonia hydroxide -   This is basically water with ammonia, likely a high percent of water and low percent of ammonia.  Some states (like the state of New Jersey) have rated Ammonia Hydroxide as a serious hazard, because it can irritate and burn the skin and eyes, leading to eye damage.  Inhaling it can irritate lungs, and repeated exposure can cause dermatitis (dryness, itching, and redness of skin).  The greater hazard I see is the presence of ammonia, which in its pure form is extremely combustible, and in a fire, the water in Ammonia Hydroxide can vaporize, leaving pure ammonia, resulting in an explosion. 
  • Coloring - This was not helpful.  No other information about the "coloring" was given.
  • Water - pretty benign.
Other than listing Ammonia hydroxide specifically, I was disappointed that more information wasn't provided about the specific solvents and surfactants that were in the product.  While some surfactants have no effect on health and are pretty benign, others (such as PFOA/C8) have been linked to causing cancer.
Stone and Steel Cleaner
  • Water - pretty benign
  • Dimethicone/Silica/PEG Distearate Antifoam - lubricant and product thickener.  According to the Material Safety Data sheet (MSDS), ventilation is needed when using a product with this ingredient.
  • Ethanolamine - according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to this chemical leads to irritation to eyes, skin, respiratory system, as well as drowsiness
  • Fragrance - according to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, one-third of the substances used in the fragrance industry are toxic.  But because fragrances are considered trade secrets, companies are not required to disclose their ingredients
  • Laramie Oxides - this is your cleaner, foam enhancer, stabilizer and thickener.  The MSDS states that exposure to the mist will cause irritation to the respiratory tract
  • Tetrapotassium EDTA - this product is used to remove hard water stains from counters, but is also listed as hard on the respiratory system
The big concern I have with this product is that every ingredient seemed to have a negative effect on the respiratory system, which is not something I want in my home with three young ones running around.
Bathroom Cleaner
  • I did not even have to look up the ingredients of this product to learn that this product is harmful to my family.  First there is the Precautionary statement that says the product is hazardous to humans and domestic animals.  Then there is a warning that says the product causes eye and skin irritation.  It also says to only use in a well-ventilated area and to avoid prolong breathing in vapors.  Considering I use this to clean my enclosed shower, I have probably been breathing the vapors in for some time now.  As I am pregnant, it is important I find an alternative to this product very soon.
After investigating what was in the cleaners I was using on a daily basis, I knew I needed to start looking into safer alternatives for my family.  Look for my part two of this series next Wednesday to find out what alternatives I found!