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Science Kids on the Loose

Science Kids on the Loose

Category: Technology

One undeniable thing I have learned while teaching science to my children is that no matter how many answers we find; we always have more questions. In the questions I can watch Henry and Leo use their intelligence with what ifs and what happens when? At first, when we tried investigations, I was wary of the questions because I wanted to complete the activity at hand, check off the accomplishments, and review what we learned. But that has changed. These days I look forward to the questions because I admire their critical thinking skills. I am proud of their curiosity.
I never thought about encouraging my children to become scientists until we started watching Sid the Science Kid and trying all kinds of science investigations. Now I want them become engineers or biologists or paleontologists just so they can have a career of exploration and curiosity.
Recently, the boys have been all about space exploration. The Star Wars craze here has been building for many months and seems to have hit an apex with the viewing of Return of the Jedi. Henry is taken with the opening phrase: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far way…” To him, these words are truth and he is trying to figure out how to travel to this galaxy far, far away. I don’t discourage him at all, because I think there is a fine line between truth and science fiction sometimes. Henry is convinced if he can find a way to get to a place “far” away then the next logical step is “far far away.” Follow me? Leo is concerned about aliens and if they are coming to Earth for a visit.
Star Wars is fun but nothing beats the true-life drama and intrigue that took place this week at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. We were lucky enough to hear a story in the car last week on NPR about JPL and the upcoming landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity. All weekend long we tuned into the NASA channel for updates and checked out all the amazing resources online for kids at We checked out books from the library and looked at images of the solar system online. Both boys asked many, many questions. Henry wanted to know if there was life on Mars right now and why did water matter? Leo wanted to know if we could cool off the sun with enough water. I wanted to know how to explain the vastness of the universe to two young boys – a difficult but thrilling task.
On Sunday night I made a decision to let the boys stay up until 10:30pm to experience the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. For those of you who may not be familiar with the mission, the drama of landing the car-sized rover centered around the “7 Minutes of Terror” when Curiosity would enter the atmosphere of Mars and attempt a complicated landing…all out of radio control from JPL. The coverage on the NASA channel was great for the kids. There were interesting graphics, views of the control room, and 1 minute animated shorts to help kids understand the engineering and science involved in landing Curiosity.
One of my favorite questions of the evening came from Henry: “How are they planning to get Curiosity back to Earth?”
As I explained that Curiosity was going to stay on Mars and conduct experiments, I watched shock register on Henry’s face. Curiosity was more than a machine to Henry; he was upset at the thought of leaving the rover behind on Mars. I reassured him by explaining that JPL would be communicating with Curiosity and that they would conduct many science experiments together. Maybe Curiosity could tell us if there had every been life on Mars.
Henry, Leo, and I were invested, to say the least. Sadly, Gerry was absent, on a business trip to China. I was missing him a lot, the original NASA fan in the family. Gerry has been enthralled with NASA since he was a young boy collecting patches and had the thrill of watching the moon landing live on TV. I wanted to give Henry and Leo a taste of that.
Sadly, it was not be for the boys. They fell asleep a full 45 minutes before the “7 Minutes of Terror.” I, however, was riveted. I watched as the engineers and scientists literally quaked in their boots waiting to see if Curiosity had landed safely. And I admit to shedding a tear or two when the first images came through and the control room erupted in cheers. It was quite a moment, quite an achievement.
The images from Mars are quite stunning. Here is my favorite.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
When the boys woke up in the morning we watched the landing again. Henry and Leo jumped up and down and whooped with joy. I hope the memory stays with them. Science can take us anywhere! Just imagine if someday one of my boys could work for NASA at JPL.

I love my smart phone. I really love it. I can take pictures, spy on my friends on social media websites, play word games, look for recipes, update my calendar and even answer phone calls. It keeps me company during some of my most boring times of the day like basketball practice or watching the boys at the park. I turn to my phone for help in for those tricky moments in the post office or doctor’s waiting room when the boys need something to keep them quiet. Is it a crutch? Perhaps. Will I ever give it up? Never ever.
But I certainly don’t want my kids to know that! And as Sid the Science Kid shows us this week, the little eyes are always watching and the little ears are always listening. It’s no secret that our children learn from the behavior we model. Sid made this point in a comical way in the latest episode about computers. He giggles as his parents respond to every alert on their computer, interrupting conversation to check email with every “ding!” Sid even says something like, “The computer makes my parents do stuff.” Talk about perspective! The episode goes on to teach about the computer as a tool for science. Sid and his friends learn that scientists use technology to share information and research new ideas.
It really made me think about the ways I use technology in my life. I certainly use the computer as a tool for writing, research, banking, travel, shopping, and scheduling. But that isn’t the way my kids see me using technology. I work when they are at school or asleep. Henry and Leo see me talking on the phone, playing games, interacting socially, taking photos, and basically “playing.” I realize that I need to purposefully take time to teach the boys about using technology as a tool.
And the kids on Sid the Science Kid did an activity on the show that does just that. The kids complete a simple science activity, journal about it, take a picture of the journal, download the picture onto the computer, and then email the picture to a parent.
I enlisted Dad’s help with the activity. While I went out shopping, they took a nature walk on the cul-de-sac looking for evidence of nature in the winter. Apparently, the whole neighborhood got involved, as the boys wandered around. Our neighbors offered information about trees, squirrels, and the weather. Gerry recorded their findings on a list as they explored. They had a great time.
When I got home, I asked to see the list. Then I invited the boys into my office to talk about the computer. I wanted them to make the connection between the information they gathered and the computer as a way to share that information. I asked them how they could share the list with Dad. Henry wisely stated that since Dad wrote the list then he probably didn’t need to see it again. I explained that Dad often forgets things and that he needed a copy of the list. So we took a picture.
Then came the process of downloading the picture onto the computer. I let them connect the wires and press the keys. And then we waited. And waited. It felt like the days of dial up. The boys got antsy so I quizzed them on the parts of the computer. Henry knew the names for mouse, keyboard, and screen, but Leo didn’t. Leo liked “mouse” because “it moves fast and quick.”
When the photo was uploaded we talked about email as a letter we send over the computer. We worked together to compose an email to Dad and press the correct buttons to send the information. Here is the email:
I know that Gerry will be tickled to receive the email and the picture. I am glad that the boys know they can use the computer to communicate. There is a more to do than play Angry Birds with a computer!
For now, I know that I won’t cut back too much on my smart phone usage. But I do think I can be smarter about what I model for my kids and when I choose to use the technology.
Do you limit your smart phone usage when the kids are around? How much do you children know about technology?

Leo and I have spent some time this week playing the new math-based science games on the Sid the Science Kid website. Or perhaps I should say that Leo has been playing the games while I fold laundry and clean out the boys’ closet. I listen from the floor as he sits on a big chair in front of the computer and plays with Sid and his friends. And let me tell you, I like what I am hearing. These games are COOL!
The nine new games, collectively called “Sid’s Science Fair,” can be found on the first game screen (they are marked with a small math symbols bar). In a nutshell, these math games cover various skills, including matching, sorting, measuring, weighing and patterns. These are not easy concepts for a preschooler who has little or no background knowledge. But the games are “hosted” by Sid and his friends, who explain the tasks in kid-friendly language, and during the game the host provides tips and encouragement.
That said the games do need parental support as children navigate the site and learn the rules and goals of each game. Most of the important instruction is available through audio cues, but Leo still needed help with navigation. I was in the same room so it was easy for me to help him along. Then, I found myself leaving my laundry in the pile so I could participate with him. As I have found in the past with Sid investigations, Leo was capable of completing activities and mastering concepts that I would not have thought possible.
For example, there is a game called Pan Balance. In the game Leo had to click on weight and move them to onto the pan to balance the object on the other side. He had never seen this kind of tool before, but through trial and error he got the hang of it. Amazingly, I was able to actually watch him learn the concepts of weights and balances. Leo liked the clicking and he also enjoyed seeing what the object on the other side of the balance would be.
I also watched Leo gain proficiency in basic computer motor skills. We have a tricky wireless mouse (I often want to throw it against the wall) but Leo managed to work through the frustrating moments. I showed him some tips and we worked with the mouse together and he did fine. He also asked me to show him how to get to the game from the main Sid page. I was able to teach him about icons and show him how to navigate the site. In those moments I am reminded how I never touched a computer until I was in college and how my children will never use a rotary phone. Am I dating myself?
I also appreciated the “Tell Me More” feature in each game (found in the lower right corner of every game on the site). Each one provided extra facts I could share with Leo, or a way to think about the math concept more offline.
These Sid’s Science Fair games provide a moment of peace for me in the midst of a media gaming storm that is raging in our house. My parents generously gifted our family a gaming system last year for the holidays and it has been tough going. Henry, especially, has had a hard time managing his emotions, competitiveness, impulsiveness, and patience when it comes to video games. We tried many different strategies and rules with the rated E games to help the boys negotiate the charged emotions that came along with the gaming system. However, more often than not, the strictly monitored sessions would end in monumental tantrums. I can’t tell you how many times I thought to myself: “Why are we letting them play these games?”
Why indeed. Last week after a particularly terrible tantrum involving both Leo and Henry, the gaming system was put away for good. Surprisingly both boys took the news with a wise nod of the head. They are hoping to get it back when Henry is 8 years old. We’ll see about that.
That is why the Sid games are a welcome oasis for us. The games do not cause any of the aforementioned tantrums and I feel like they boys are learning valuable computer skills while being exposed to important educational concepts. That’s a win-win, in my book. I can participate without feeling like a mean referee and that is how it should be with a family activity.
Please go check out the new games and let us know what you think. What is your philosophy about computers in the home with preschoolers? I’d love to hear from you!

Produced by: Funding is provided by:
Jim Hensen Corporation logo CPB ViNCi MetLife The Rosehills Foundation S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation logo The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations logo

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