Children’s Literature & Resources that Support Math

Children’s Literature Can Make Math Fun!

Children’s literature can make math accessible and fun!

It seems as if the connections between children’s literature and topics within many academic disciplines are endless. Captivating stories introduce fascinating historical eras, animal tales for young readers share basic concepts of biology, and stories of community teach children about interacting with new people and building relationships. However, somewhat elusive within children’s literature are math concepts. Perhaps the most challenging academic subject to integrate smoothly into your family’s everyday life, math has often been taught through memorization and drilling rather than through curiosity-driven exploration. However, despite it’s elusiveness, math is very much present within children’s literature, and there are numerous resources to support families in exploring math together… and making it fun!

We asked Beryl Hoffman, assistant professor of Computer and Information Technology at Elms College in Chicopee, and a homeschooling mom living in Florence, what children’s literature she would recommend for families wanting to supplement learning (and a love) of math at home.  She had several great picture books to recommend for children that playfully explore math concepts within a story… Read the rest of this entry »

Put Some STE(A)M into Your Valentines!

Put Some STE(A)M into Your Valentines!

This Valentine’s Day, spread friendship and kindness throughout your community by participating in Hilltown Families’ 6th annual Handmade Valentine Swap! Participation is easy – all you have to do is sign up, make ten handmade valentines and drop them in the mail, and you’ll receive ten handmade cards in return. Not only is the event an opportunity for families to connect with others in their community, participation allows families the opportunity to be creative together – an activity that can lead not only to creative-free play, but can also offer hands-on learning in fields like physics, chemistry, geometry and cultural studies!  Read on…

Science & Fun of Chain Reactions

Dominoes, Popsicle Sticks & Rube Goldberg Machines
The Science (and Fun!) of Chain Reactions

There are lots of concepts that children learn that involve chain reactions. The interrelatedness of nature is, for example, entirely dependent on an intricately woven set of relationships. When one thing changes – the availability of a resource or the population of an animal, perhaps – everything else is affected. Human populations experience a similar phenomenon – such relationships are all around us! However, the abstract nature of interrelated relationships can be hard for kids to grasp. Explaining difficult concepts using metaphor or visual representations can he helpful, but what about something that kids can touch and see themselves – something that perfectly illustrates the idea of interrelatedness and chain reactions, but happens much more quickly than chain reactions do in nature or within human society?  Read more (and see) about chain reactions… you’ll be amazed!

Sing About Science and Math

University of Washington’s Sing About Science and Math Project: Songs for Teaching, Learning & Fun

For many young learners, rhythm and repetition can be a very effective way of learning new words and remembering the names of things. Children easily learn commonly sung songs with lyrics of all kinds, and we use their ability to learn lyrics as a way to share information. Take the ABC’s for example – it’s a song that we use to teach the letters of the English alphabet, it’s fun and easy to sing, and matching the names of letters to different parts of the rhythm helps to support children in remembering the order that the go in.

Songs don’t just have to be used to convey basic ideas to the youngest of learners, though – there are educational songs for kids of all ages and about all kinds of things! The University of Washington’s Sing About Science and Math Project offers an online database of over 7,000 songs that cover an immense variety of topics in technology, biology, environmental science, physics, chemistry, math, engineering, and medicine. The database, which has been growing since 2004, includes tunes for kids of all ages – meaning there are songs about the periodic table for kindergarteners, high school sophomores, graduate students, and grandparents, too, like this one by They Might Be Giants:

The site’s search function allows for parents and educators (and older students) to search by more than just topic… Read the rest of this entry »

Montague Soap Box Derby: Making Math and Science Fun!

Montague Soap Box Derby for Youth
Sunday, Sept 22nd, 2013

Wondering what a Soap Box Derby is? According to Wikipedia, it’s “a youth soapbox car racing program which has been running in the United States since 1934.” Read about the history of the Soap Box Derby on Wikipedia.

The 4th annual Montague Soap Box Derby is coming up!  The event will take place on September 22nd on 1st Street in Turners Falls, at the top of the Unity Park hill.  There are three age brackets (8-12yo; 13-19yo; 20+yo.), and participants should race homemade cars with a minimum of three wheels and no motorized propulsion.

Designing, building, and racing a car can provide a multidisciplinary hands-on learning experience for kids, making math and science fun and would be an excellent project to work on this summer! Designing a car requires some basic math, engineering, and design skills, and executing a plan means learning how to use basic tools.  The race itself is a physics lesson – racers will learn how to utilize the slope of the hill paired with the size and weight of their car to accomplish the fastest speed possible.

Western Reserve Public Media in Ohio has made available a comprehensive teacher’s guide (pdf) designed for 5th & 6th grades called Masters of Gravity which could serve as a curriculum tool for the Soap Box Derby in Montague, MA.

For more information or to register, call 413-320-5336 or visit montaguesoapboxraces.comDeadline to enter for this year Sept 2nd!

STEMBite: Bite Sized Videos Supporting STEM Education

STEMBite: Snack-Sized Science Videos

Add some science to these hot summer days with STEMBite, a YouTube channel that offers snack-size videos focused on topics in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and the things in our everyday lives that they are related to. Most of the videos are between one and a half and two minutes long, and are shot from the perspective of the narrator using Google Glass, who explores a different topic, item, and/or surroundings in each one.

Interesting topics include the form and function of animal adaptations and evolution (Form, Function, and Chickens), the physics of sound waves and the concept’s application to shower time singing (Physics of Singing in the Shower), the science and design behind the barcodes found on mass-produced items and price tags in stores (Barcodes), and many others STEM topics.

While most of the topics addressed in the videos are best for older students (grade 4 and above), the videos are short and use fairly simple terms to explain each idea. Younger students may absorb less than an older student would while watching, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t learn at all! Perusing the channel might be a great way to help kids develop curiosity in parts of science that they may not discover on their own – like simple machines or light diffusion. The narrator’s fun tone and the sometimes silly activities that he does help to draw kids in, and the examination of everyday objects helps to provide ways for students to see how each topic applies in their own lives. Try viewing videos related to some of the topics that your child studied in school last year, or ones covering some of the topics that they might encounter once they return in the fall. Not sure what they might be learning? Contact your school for a copy of the district’s curriculum frameworks, or access the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks for science online at

Science in the Parks this Summer

Science in the Parks in Pittsfield
A Remedy to Summer Slide

Go on a hunt for frogs and the insects they eat at Science in the Parks. Through closer examination, kids can learn the importance ecology plays in the lives of animals in various habitats , like the way this frog is camouflaged among leaf litter and woodland flowers.  (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Public parks are accessible green spaces families can visit in the summer months to both observe and explore nature. Whether they be well-manicured or allowed to grow wild and free, our local parks offer a lot to learn and explore in terms of ecology, natural & local history, and creative free play.

Science educator Lisa Provencher is holding a Science in the Parks event every Saturday from June 22-August 17 from 10am-12noon this summer, an great opportunity for young students to use their local parks to further their understanding of ecology through science based methods.  Kids of all ages can come to four different parks around Pittsfield, MA and learn about watersheds and their impact on local ecology at this free program.

Participants will have the chance to do activities like test the pH of water, identify aquatic plants, and participate in a hunt from insects and amphibians.  They will also get the chance to identify invasive species and meet some live animals up close!

Read the rest of this entry »

STEM Opportunities at The Great Holyoke Brick Race

The Great Holyoke Brick Race: June 8th, 2013

Intergenerational collaborations can provide young students with hands-on lessons in the basic science of physics and principles of design at the 3rd annual Great Holyoke Brick Race happening on Saturday, June 8th!

Take on the coolest gravity based physics experiment around at the Great Holyoke Brick Race!  Similar to the Boy Scouts of America’s traditional Pinewood Derby, the event requires that participants create their own miniature car to race down a specific track.  However, unlike Pinewood Derby, the cars are not wooden – the main piece of material is a brick!

Hosted by Paper City Studios, the race is open to participants of any age and from anywhere in the world (No need to be a Holyoke native!).  Entries can be created by individuals, or by teams of any size, allowing for lots of intergenerational collaboration and knowledge pooling.  Each car can be no more than 15” tall and 18” wide – and the key to speed is a low and wide wheel base.  No more than 50 entries will be accepted for the race – so sign up now to ensure that your creative car gets a chance to roll down the track!

Read the rest of this entry »

Passport to Chemistry Adventure for Kids at Mt. Holyoke College, 2013

Passport to Chemistry Adventure at Mt. Holyoke College

[Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield]

Experiment with science at home, and work towards a chance to participate in a special chemistry adventure day at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA.

Families can sign out chemistry kits from their local library and do experiments at home. Participating libraries include: South Hadley Public Library; Wilbraham Public LibraryEmily Williston Memorial Library (Easthampton);  Edwards Library (Southampton); and Mount Holyoke College Library (South Hadley).

There are kits available for K-2nd & 3rd-6th grades. Participating library patrons get a stamp on their “chemistry passport” for each kit they complete, and after accumulating five, they can apply to be part of a special chemistry event!

On Saturday, June 1st from 2-4pm, the college is hosting 2013 Passport to Chemistry Adventure – and the theme is energy! To apply, kids must submit a Chemistry Visa application by May 15th, using their chemistry passport stamps as proof that they are armed with enough chemistry knowledge to participate!

After applying, families will find out what time their activity will take place. Kids participating will get to take part in a fun, investigative activity that allows them to learn basic principles of chemistry. To sign up, visit

Citizen Scientists Wanted for Swarmageddon as Magicicada Emerge from the Warming Earth

After 17 Years, Cicadas Scheduled to Emerge from the Earth Along the Eastern Seaboard. Will They Be Emerging Here in Western MA?

This year, for the first time since 1996, a Magicicada brood will emerge from the ground all across the eastern United States.  This special species – unlike other cicadas – emerges every 17 years with the entire species growing and developing at the same time,  creating synchronized cycles of growth, reproduction, and death.  These insects go through a complicated and specialized series of stages of development as a group, taking 13-17 years to grow into adult cicadas and emerge from the ground.  They will lay eggs for the next generation simultaneously, continuing their synchronized cycle of regeneration.

Much like frogs and salamanders, the cicadas will emerge from the ground only when the temperature is right!  Magicicadas require a soil temperature of 64 degrees Fahrenheit, extending as deep as eight full inches into the ground – meaning that cicadas will show themselves much earlier further south, while southern New England soil continues to warm up.  Families can track and predict the burst of bugs by monitoring the temperature of the soil in their backyard – while western Massachusetts isn’t expected to have a huge number of cicadas (check out the web site: Massachusetts Cicadas), their existence is quite likely given that Connecticut and the Hudson River Valley in New York are both home to Magicidadas.

In order to predict the bugs’ appearance in your yard, track the soil temperature using a basic thermometer, which can be purchased online or at a gardening specialty store.  Families can also build their own cicada detectors, which will not only measure soil temperature, but will track the creatures’ movement!  Families with older students can learn valuable STEM skills by building a detector, and can use the data that they collect to contribute to cicada tracking and research.  RadioLab, an online resource for STEM-related projects and information, offers instructions for building and operating your own cicada detector, and also has information about submitting collected data.  Follow the instructions to become amateur entomology researchers, and help contribute to the recording of an unusual scientific phenomenon!

Girls Connect: An Introduction to LEGO Robotics for Pioneer Valley Youth

Learn how to build and program LEGO robots!

Girls Connect

Girls Connect takes place March 9th in Holyoke and April 6th in Amherst. Pre-registration required. Girls ages 8-13 are invited to attend in teams of 5 to be part of the Western MA Girls Connect event. This cool all-girl introduction to FIRST LEGO League matches you up with coaches and professional engineers to learn how to build and program LEGO robots to do real-world tasks.

The idea of robots can seem like very sophisticated machines, created by highly trained robotics specialists.  However, robotic machines don’t have to be very complex – and even kids can learn to make them!

There are two opportunities coming up in the Pioneer Valley for youth to experiment with LEGO robotics. The FIRST LEGO League is offering two introductory workshops just for girls to learn about participating in the FIRST LEGO robotics competitions.  Called Girls Connect, the workshops are open to girls ages 8-13 living in Hampshire, Hampden, and Franklin counties.  The workshops will match teams of girls (5 per team) up with coaches, professional engineers and computer scientists in order to tackle the challenges presented.  Teams will use a variety of LEGO parts to program their robots to complete everyday tasks, similar to the challenges presented in regular FIRST LEGO League competitions.  The workshops will end with a friendly competition, and awards will be given to teams based on their finished products and their hard work in creating them.

Participation in the workshop can help girls learn about FIRST LEGO League and ways to apply basic principles of math, science, and engineering.  Participation in engineering activities can be empowering for girls, and can help them learn how useful the scientific and mathematical ideas that they learn in school can be.

The workshops will take place on Saturday, March 9th at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, and on Saturday, April 6th at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Karen Sullivan writes, “Teams may attend either date, but not both. In order to receive registration materials, one adult member (teacher, parent, Girl Scout troop leader, afterschool program staff) of your team must join one of the following brief informational conference calls on Wednesday, February 27th at 7:30pm or Thursday, February 28th at 3:00pm (April 6th event only). Join the call by dialing 1-218-339-2699 Access Code 354432. Note, this is not a toll-free number; long-distance charges apply.”

To apply or receive more information, please go here.

Federal Fish and Wildlife Services’ Junior Duck Stamp Program

Supplement Habitat Studies with the Junior Duck Stamp Program

The Junior Duck Stamp Program offers an educational arts and science curriculum which educators can use for incorporating science, art, math and technology into habitat conservation studies. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Western Massachusetts is home to a wide variety of duck species.  These beautiful birds make their homes in wetland areas, a habitat in need of conservation.  Students can learn about duck species and help to promote wetland conservation by participating in the Federal Fish and Wildlife Services’ Junior Duck Stamp Program!  This contest calls for students to create their own stamps, featuring a specific duck species portrayed in its habitat.  Students should learn about their species of choice, so as to make the best and most accurate depiction possible!  Their design should reflect the group’s goal in creating the stamp – to share the beauty and importance of the species of the duck depicted.

Students should learn to understand the relationship between the duck and its specific environment, and should understand why the duck has such specific habitat requirements.  Students can also study other stamp designs to learn what makes a good stamp!

Entries in the contest will be judged in four different age groups, and the winning entry will be made into a stamp and released in June.  The contest is an opportunity for students to learn about local biodiversity, and to work on their understanding of the interrelatedness of species and their habitat.  Students can also work on their art skills, working carefully to clearly portray their duck.  The contest deadline is March 15th. For more information visit

Online resources for educators:

A Look at the Girl Scouts: Science Curriculum & Healthy Relationships

The Girl Scouts: So Much More Than Cookies

Have you checked out the Girl Scouts recently? What an impressive institution! They are celebrating their 100th anniversary and they are better than ever. You probably know that the Girl Scouts support growing girls by encouraging responsible citizenship, generosity, and camaraderie. You might not realize, though, that there is a strong academic component to the organization.

The Girl Scouts have an actual curriculum with engaging and interactive materials. It is known as the Journeys (National Leadership Journeys) curriculum and it covers a lot of the same ideas considered in science class, but it is much more fun. Each scout gets a cheerful, but appropriately challenging, book full of activities and projects. One Journey, for example, is called “Power it Up.” In this Journey, according to the Girl Scouts website, “Girls learn about electronics and circuitry through a series of hands-on investigations. They explore Snap Circuits, learn about basic electronic components, and build different kinds of circuits. Rounding out this unit, girls develop soldering skills and make circuits that they can take home.“ Yes, Girl Scouts are wiring the world!

Another journey is called “ThrillBuilders,” in which girls explore the fundamental concepts of mechanical engineering to produce their own model circus. The ThrillBuilders curriculum comes with a box full of materials ready for a group of girls to explore.  In this video four hands-on activities girls complete with this program-in-a-box are illustrated:

Girl scouts have always worked to earn badges. The requirements for all of the badges have even been correlated by grade level, to state and national educational standards. What an asset to teachers and meticulous home-schoolers! More information about the state standards is available here: Program Connections to State (and National) Curriculum Standards.

The Girl Scouts, as an organization, are aware of the big picture. While the girls are learning about electricity, the Girl Scout Leadership Institute is thinking about things like: Real to Me: Girls and Reality TV (2011), The Resilience Factor: A Key to Leadership in African American and Hispanic Girls (2011), Beauty Redefined: Girls and Body Image Survey (2010), Who’s That Girl: Image and Social Media Survey (2010). They are actively working to understand the challenges that girls are facing! Furthermore, the Girl Scouts encourages all of this learning while also emphasizing the development of healthy relationships, the prevention of bullying, and the creation of peacemakers.

If you are interested in learning more about the Girl Scouts, meetings and troops are forming right now in Western MA. The Girls Scouts even have a program for girls who want to be “virtual” members and are seeking a safe place to be online. The Scouts are always seeking new troop leaders and there are many other ways to volunteer with the organization.  Here are some useful links to learn more about the Girls Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts and the programs they offer that are unique to this council:

UPCOMING EVENT: November 16, 2012

100th Anniversary Reception of the Girl Scouts of America

Girls enjoy Camp Bonnie Brae in Otis in the 1940s. Camp Bonnie Brae is one of the two Girl Scouts camps in the Berkshires; pictures and items from it and the other Girl Scout camp, Camp Marion White in Richmond, are part of an exhibit currently on display at the Stockbridge Library’s Museum & Archives. The exhibit also includes local historical uniforms and other memorabilia in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Girl Scouting. (courtesy photo)

The Stockbridge Library Museum & Archives has partnered with the Girl Scouts of central and western Massachusetts to present an exhibit on the more recent history of scouting. This exhibit, A Century of Girl Scouting, includes photographs, manuals, and other memorabilia associated with Girl Scouting.  Camping, which has long been a part of scouting, will be highlighted.  Numerous uniforms worn by the different levels of scouts also will be on display.  In connection with this exhibit, the hope is gather more information about the history of local troops.  Former scouts and friends are invited to a reception on Friday, November 16, 2012, from 6-8 pm.  They are also are interested in capturing local memories on tape as part of the Museum & Archives’ Oral History Collection; please contact Curator Barbara Allen at 413-298-5501 or to set up an appointment.  The Stockbridge Library is located at 46 Main Street,  Stockbridge, MA.


Theresa Heary-Selah — Theresa is a teacher and a freelance writer, making her home in Greenfield, MA and Wright, NY with her family.  She teaches at S.H.I.N.E. (Students at Home in New England), a social and academic support program for middle school students in the Pioneer Valley, and writes about home-schooling and technology.  Theresa’s interests include home-schooling, gardening, cooking, hiking, and dancing.

6 Resources for Learning at Home During Frankenstorm While the Lights are On!

Hurricane Sandy and Halloween Offer Learning Opportunities Online

Hurricane Sandy might have schools closed while we await her arrival, but the learning can continue at home (so long as you have power!). Check out these online resources to brush up on math, chemistry, physiology, language arts and world & local history:


After you’ve battening down the shutters and have prepared your home & family for Hurricane Sandy (and still have power), let’s to use this event for real-world applications for learning. One online resource is “Math in the News” who takes current events as seen through the prism of mathematics every week. They are currently looking a probability maps for Hurricane Sandy.  Take a look with your kids at Math in the News and practice math skills:


Who has Halloween candy laying around right now from events this past weekend or for passing out on Halloween night? Did you know you can use candy to conduct science experiments in the kitchen with your kids! Experiments include Acid Test using Pixy Stixs, Chromatography using M&M’s, Density experiment with Skittles, and many others!  Check out our post from last year, “Science Experiments with Candy” for ideas.


Here’s a succinct video about the history of Halloween produced by the History Channel: “Straddling the line between fall and winter, plenty and paucity, life and death, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition. It is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into a secular, community-based event characterized by child-friendly activities such as trick-or-treating. In a number of countries around the world, as the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, people continue to usher in the winter season with gatherings, costumes and sweet treats.”


Are your kids all about Zombies this Halloween? In this animated video from TEDed, Tim Verstynen & Bradley Voytek apply the various human medical possibilities that make zombies…zombies. Find out the physiology behind what’s happening in their brains to make them act as they do.  After watching this video check out the full lesson.


H-A-Double L-O-W-Double E-N spells Halloween! Remember that song when you were a kid just learning to spell? Here’s a cool video for this song for your young kids to watch for a fun way to learn how to spell Halloween


Are your kids learning about or interested in the Salem Witch Trials?  National Geographic has an interactive resource on the Salem Witch Hunt, Discovery Education has tips for teachers and home educators on the Salem Witch Trials for grade level 5-8, the National Teacher Training Institute offers lesson plans on the The Salem Witchcraft Trials and The Crucible for grades 5-12, and Historian Elizabeth Reis uses primary sources in an education video on the history of the Salem Witch Trials at Teaching History.  The History Channel offers this short video to help tell the tale of this event in Massachusetts history:

Science Quest at UMass for Teens

UMass’ Science Quest
Saturday, October 27th

Science Quest is an exciting opportunity for high school students to visit the UMass Amherst campus and engage in hands-on science activities, demonstrations, and guided lab tours. All presentations are organized by UMass faculty members and designed for high school-aged students. Science Quest is a one-day free event happening on Saturday, October 27th in Amherst.

Students learn about a wide variety of STEM topics in school – everything from the periodic table to the Pythagorean Theorem – but often aren’t shown the interesting, practical, and often surprising ways that STEM topics can be applied to real life!

High school aged youth are invited to UMass’ Science Quest, an annual free event that offers students the opportunity to learn firsthand about science research, the practical applications of science knowledge, and the creativity that STEM work sometimes allows!

At Science Quest, students can take a tour of the school’s physics lab, to see how nanoscales are made; learn about both the political and technological sides of biofuels, solar energy, and fuel cells; and see crazy (but science-based) demonstrations of peanut butter being turned into a powder, ice cream made using nitrogen, and more!  The event will also include a panel discussion with current UMass students pursuing degrees in a variety of STEM-related fields, as well as a Q+A with UMass faculty and staff on the university’s programs and studies of STEM in higher education in general.

Registration is required – students may attend as part of a school or homeschool group, or on their own.  Science Quest will take place on Saturday, October 27th from 9:30am-4:30pm at UMass’ Integrated Science Building (661 North Pleasant St.) in Amherst, MA, and includes free registration, parking and lunch. Limited travel funding and PDPs for teachers is also available. For more info visit

Women in Engineering Career Day at UMass

UMass Hosts Women in Engineering Career Day for Local High School Students
Monday, October 29th, 2012

Open to young women in grades 9-12, Women in Engineering Career Day will take place at  UMass Amherst on Monday, October 29th from 8:30am-1:30pm. Activities include: hands-on engineering and computing activities; demonstrations of state-of-the-art technology, information about career opportunities; lunch chats with college students, professors, and engineers; and optional tours of engineering and computer science labs.

Historically, the field of engineering has been male dominated.  Today, however, women are breaking into engineering, computing, and other science-related professions more and more.  To promote women’s pursuits of science, technology, and engineering, UMass’ Society of Women Engineers and Women in Engineering Program host Women in Engineering Career Day!

Open to young women in grades 9-12, the event will take place on Monday, October 29th from 8:30am-1:30pm.  Included in the event will be a keynote speaker (Valerie Gordeski, a systems engineer with Raytheon, a major defense contractor), tours of the school’s engineering and science labs, hands-on computing and engineering activities, technology demonstrations, information about career opportunities and college pursuits, and a chance to talk with female students and professors of engineering.

No matter their background knowledge, Women in Engineering Day offers students a unique opportunity to learn about possibilities for their futures in an empowering, all-women environment.  Older students interested in pursuing STEM subjects at a women’s college may find the event particularly useful – they will experience firsthand what it is like to work with an all-female group to solve hands-on computing problems and piece together systems using basic engineering skills.  Space is limited and registration is required ($) – non-homeschooled students should register through their school guidance counselor.  More information at Space fills up quickly!

MIT Launches Student-Produced STEM Educational Video Initiative

Original Short Videos Aim to Fuel K-12 Students’ Interest in STEM

Well-known education resource Khan Academy, a web site offering video-based learning to students, sparked a small revolution in the utilization of video in the classroom.  Videos, once reserved for rainy days or special activities, can now be an incredibly valuable educational resource.  Students are able to pace their own learning when using videos, as they can stop, repeat, and rewind as many times as they need to in order to understand, without feeling pressured to keep up with other students.

Well… MIT and the Khan Academy have teamed up to offer special videos on topics within STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) created by their students!

MIT, home to 10,000 STEM students, holds a wealth of knowledge, and students have created videos on many unique topics – everything from flying robots to the earth’s rotation.  The project, titled MIT+K12, includes videos for students in any grade.  The videos are available on the project’s website and on YouTube – teachers, parents, and even kids can search the site for videos to help with tricky subjects or to learn about something they’re curious about!

8 Ways to Create Engaging Engineering Activities at Home

Engineering Projects for Children at Home

I continue to be amazed at the natural engineering instincts of young children.  Ironically, with all the technology available to kids today (television, computers, tablets, video games), overuse takes time away from building and creating, both of which can lead our next generation of ethical scientists and engineers to solving some of the problems overuse of technology causes.

Giving kids a hands-on opportunity to explore the engineering aspects of technology has many benefits that can lead to this development of problem solving. When I taught third grade, I always had a take-apart learning center in my classroom, drawing in many young students.  Frequently, I would see kids with great mechanical and engineering skills participating who otherwise might have trouble with more traditional schoolwork.  It was a place they could excel using their natural talents.

Check out the energy and excitement of these kids taking apart old computers at a recent Williamsburg Schools science fair:

How can you create engaging engineering activities at home?  Here are eight recommendations:

  1. Get old computers, printers, radios, toasters, typewriters, etc. at your local transfer station.  Cut the cord off, give your kids some old tools and let them have at it.  (I don’t let kids take apart anything with glass, such as monitors, or open up the barrel shaped capacitors found in electronics.)
  2. Give kids paper, cardboard, cardboard tubes, scissors, tapes, and makers and see what happens.
  3. With similar materials as above, have your kids construct marble runs, courses that go from a table to the floor made out of found materials.
  4. Traditional activities such as LEGO blocks, Trios, and Lincoln Logs are still great engineering activities.  While it’s fine to build by the book, kids should also have a chance to build whatever they want.
  5. Appliance boxes are great for building larger structures.
  6. Outside, help kids get materials to build forts and fairy houses.
  7. Paper airplane are a time honored engineering activity for kids.  Make up your own or try some of these designs to start.   Add some math by measuring which design flies the farthest.
  8. Consider purchasing WeDo (grades 1 to 4) or NXT (grades 5 and up) LEGO robotics kits for home.

Share your own engineering activities in the comments section below.


John Heffernan ♦ Tech Talk: Supporting Creative Play with Technology

John is currently the technology teacher the Williamsburg Schools. He has also worked as an educational technology consultant, a third grade teacher, and as a software engineer.  He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Tufts and a Masters of Education from Lesley University.   John lives in Conway with his wife, 5 year old son, and 2 whippets.  In additional to his interest in technology, John is a juggler, musician, and animal tracker.  Read more about his engineering adventures at

Passport to Chemistry Adventure for Kids at Mt. Holyoke College, 2012

Passport to Chemistry Adventure

Recipe for Homemade Baking Powder

Recipe for Homemade Baking Powder

Experiment with science at home, and work towards a chance to participate in a special chemistry adventure day at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA.

Families can sign out chemistry kits from their local library and do experiments at home. Participating libraries include: South Hadley Public Library, M. N. Spear Memorial Library (Shutesbury), Wilbraham Public Library and Emily Williston Memorial Library (Easthampton). There are kits available for K-2nd & 3rd-6th grades. Participating library patrons get a stamp on their “chemistry passport” for each kit they complete, and after accumulating five, they can apply to be part of a special chemistry event!

On Saturday, June 9th, the college is hosting 2012 Passport to Chemistry Adventure – and the theme is food and chemistry! To apply, kids must submit a Chemistry Visa application by May 15th, using their chemistry passport stamps as proof that they are armed with enough chemistry knowledge to participate!

After applying, families will find out what time their activity will take place. Kids participating will get to take part in a fun, investigative activity that allows them to learn basic principles of chemistry while using something they’re familiar with (local food!) as learning materials. To sign up, visit

[Photo credit: (ccl) Susy Morris]

Three Programs Kids Can Use to Learn How to Create Video Games

Kids Creating Video Games

Many kids today are great at playing (consuming) video games but who will create the video games of tomorrow?  I think it’s fine for kids to play appropriate video games in moderation.  See Common Sense Media for reviews and ratings for video games.  However, many kids today only consume content.  What we really need in the future is for the next generation to create interesting, appropriate, and constructive content.  That’s goes for television, movies, websites, apps, and games and other media we can’t even envision now.  This activity is great for encouraging interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects, as well as art.

Here’s three different ways kids can create video games at home or at school:


The first program I use with kids in grade three and up at the Williamsburg Schools is called Stagecast Creator ($$, with a 120-day free trial version).  Stagecast Creator uses programming by example to help students design games and simulations.  Kids design different characters and define the rules for interactions between the mouse or the keyboard.  Rules are programming graphically and not with traditional text based programming.

I start the kids with a maze game.  They design blocks that form the maze.  They next create a main character and program it to move with the arrow keys into empty spaces.  They add trap doors, power-ups or food to make the game more interesting.  Here’s an example (need Java plug-in).

Students have also used this to create predator-prey simulations, similar to what wildlife biologists do.  For example, students create grass, rabbit, and coyote characters.  The grass is programmed to multiple randomly.  Rabbits eat grass and create more rabbits.  Coyotes are programming to wander around and eat rabbits.  Students can see what happens if there are too many rabbits (the ecosystem crashes because there is no grass) or too many coyotes (no rabbits but lots of grass).  We have also recreated the Asteroid game in previous years.  This game is hard to do in Scratch (below) because you can’t replicate an instance of a character in Scratch.  But in Stagecast Creator, you can create one block that shoots out asteroids and that can be copied to different places.


Scratch  is another great video game creation program, which was created at MIT.  This is a free download.  Like Stagecast Creator, Scratch is also icon based but has an extensive collection of more traditional programming functions, which are put together to make games and animations.  I use this with six graders to recreate the first video game, Pong.  I have step-by-step directions (pdf) available to create a Pong game.  Kids follow the directions but decorate and modify the model in different ways as they learn the software.  Kids then move on to create a Pac-Man game, again with detailed directions they modify before they create their own game from Scratch (pun intended).   I have a collection of Pong games created by sixth graders this year. — Scratch also has an online component where games may be freely shared and discussed. (Free Download)


Gamestar Mechanic is a website and online gaming community for creating video games totally online.  Students play a video game that teaches video principles and earn points that “buy” tools to create their own games.  I have not used this one as much but I know it is also is in use with sixth grades at the Norris School in Southampton.  I found it a bit tedious, as a teacher, to earn the points just to learn the system but I’m sure students will find it less so.  There are free and premium versions but you can do everything you need to with the free version.

This summer iD Tech Camps will be offered in Amherst, giving students ages 7-17yo opportunities to learn how to create not only video games, but also iPhone apps, 3D models, movies and website.  Check out this summer camp (and a variety of other summer camp options) on the Hilltown Families post, Summer Camps and Programs in Western MA.


John Heffernan ♦ Tech Talk: Supporting Creative Play with Technology

John is currently the technology teacher the Williamsburg Schools. He has also worked as an educational technology consultant, a third grade teacher, and as a software engineer.  He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Tufts and a Masters of Education from Lesley University.   John lives in Conway with his wife, 5 year old son, and 2 whippets.  In additional to his interest in technology, John is a juggler, musician, and animal tracker.  Read more about his engineering adventures at

[Photo credit: (ccl) Patrick Hoesly]

Online Science Fair For Teens

Everyone has a question. What’s yours?
Google Science Fair 2012

Calling all curious kids!  Google is hosting their own science fair for kids ages 13-18!  Students who enter are asked to develop a project based on a question of their own, then design a website giving information about the project and create a video or taped presentation about their work!  Kids can enter alone or in groups of two or three.  The contest is just like a regular science fair, except that kids will be presenting their work online instead of in person.  The deadline is April 1st, meaning students have just over a month to develop their question, do research, and find concluding information.  Students can pursue any question they want, so long as they’ve developed it themselves!  The science fair provides kids a way to exercise creativity within the realm of science- an opportunity that isn’t often provided within a traditional educational experience.  Kids will learn to ask and answer their own questions, set goals, and carry out independent work and research.

Check out Lauren Hodge of Pennsylvania, who was inspired by dinner with her family to ask questions and develop a project for the Google Science Fair last year… and won!

To learn more about the contest, visit

Students Invited to Create Wind Turbines & Sustainable Dollhouses for Expo

KidWind & Green Dollhouse Challenge at the
Western MA Science & Sustainability Expo

This May, Greenfield Community College will be hosting the first annual Western Massachusetts Science and Sustainability Exposition. The expo is an opportunity for educators and students to share and showcase their projects, initiatives, services, and resources surrounding the topic of sustainability.

The exposition also includes two exciting learning opportunities for students- the KidWind Challenge and the Green Dollhouse Challenge. Each of the challenges calls for students to design and build a realistic, working model.  KidWind calls for a wind turbine, and Green Dollhouse requires students to create a dollhouse that uses renewable energy sources and features sustainable materials and design.

KIDWIND ♦ For KidWind, the turbines will be judged based on a few different criteria, including energy harnessing efficiency and cost to create. More information is available at

GREEN DOLLHOUSE ♦ In the Green DollHouse challenge, students will have to get creative to come up with as many different sustainable aspects as they can to incorporate into their house! From each challenge, students will learn about sustainably building, renewable energy, and architecture/design. Both projects can be tied in with studies of physics, environmental science, and/or architecture.

For more information about the expo or either of the challenges, contact Susan Reyes at 413-259-1658.

Art Technology and Software: A Review of 5 Programs for Students

Technology, Art and Kids

Students use KidPix to create diagrams of their studies of volcanos.

Students use KidPix to create diagrams for their study unit on volcanoes.

I sometimes hear concerns from parents about technology and their children.  Are they too young to use computers?  Are they using technology too much?  What I have found, in my experience using technology with students for over 20 years, is that it is not so much “how much” and “when” but “what.”  In our work at the Williamsburg Schools, we aim to enable kids to use technology constructively and creatively while also helping teachers meet state standards.  Today, I’ll go over some commercial and free programs and give some ideas of how they can be used at home and in educational settings.   We will look at animation and comic book software in a future column.

First, doing art on the computer can never replace the tactile experience of working with physical materials.  However, art of the computer is a useful adjunct to using physical materials and can also provide some added possibilities.  Depending on the hardware and software used, students use the mouse, fingers (on tablet computer), or a drawing tablet for more sophisticated artists.


Our first program is KidPix from Software MacKiev ($$) which runs on Windows and Macintosh.

Winner of a Parent’s Choice Silver Award, we use KidPix starting at the end of preschool and heavily in Kindergarten and first grade, though elementary students all the way up to sixth grade also use it.  The program is primarily good for one-page projects. and has standard tools for drawing, such as pen, paint, fill bucket, stamps, stickers, erasers, and more.  We usually require students to draw everything themselves for content related projects rather than use KidPix supplied backgrounds, stamps, and stickers.

Some ideas for using KidPix include:  alphabet or number books; daily illustrated journals; self and family portraits; and free drawing.  I recommend letting kids explore all the different tools first.

If you’d like to try this program at home for two weeks, they offer a free 15-day trial you can download from their web site.


For multiple page projects, I like use HyperStudio 5 ($$$), also from Software MacKiev.  The drawing tools are similar to KidPix but HyperStudio allows multiple pages and kids create buttons (either visible or invisible) to allow hyperlinking between pages of their project.  Both KidPix and Hyperstudio allow kids to record their voices to go with buttons or pages.  Both also have built in integration with iLife.  For example, you can easily access your iPhoto Library to pull into photos into projects.

Here’s some ideas for using HyperStudio:  butterfly life cycle and other cycles in nature; kids create their own “house” where each page is a room connected by invisible buttons on door knob; kids research states and use HyperStudio to document a trip through a region of the United States.  It’s great for kids who want to present on any topic they know a lot about.  Kids can create presentations to show to family and friends.

Roger Wagner, the creator of HyperStudio, sent me this link, which shows many different ways HyperStudio is being used.  If you’d like to try HyperStudio 5 at home, a free 30-day trial is available for HyperStudio here.


Sketchbook Express (free), available on the Macintosh App Store and also for Windows, is a really nice tool that is simple enough for kids but also sophisticated.

We use Glow Draw (free from Indigo Penguin Limited, there are a number of apps with the same or a similar name) and Doodle Buddy (free, $.99 to hide ads)  on our iPad at home for fun sketching.  Using the iPad and other tablets can be good for young children since they use their fingers and not the mouse, which requires more sophisticated visual and motor skills.  It’s good to provide a range of apps on your tablet computer so your children have variety of modes of expression (music, art, math, reading, science and social studies) to balance their natural attraction to games.

For more examples of creative student technology work, see


John Heffernan ♦ Tech Talk: Supporting Creative Play with Technology

John is currently the technology teacher the Williamsburg Schools. He has also worked as an educational technology consultant, a third grade teacher, and as a software engineer.  He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Tufts and a Masters of Education from Lesley University.   John lives in Conway with his wife, 5 year old son, and 2 whippets.  In additional to his interest in technology, John is a juggler, musician, and animal tracker.  Read more about his engineering adventures at

[Photo credit: (ccl) ssedro]

2 Ways to Get Creative with Robotics

Creative Play With Lego Robots

On Saturday, December 10 in Agawam, MA from 9am-3pm, there’s a regional qualifier for the First Lego League, which is an afterschool program where kids from all over the world compete to build the best design for a yearly challenge.

Toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners are natural engineers. They love sand castles, blocks, fairy houses, and other projects that support their creative, fantasy play.  We support this natural engineering instinct in schools with building bricks, Legos, and sand and water tables.  Yet, as students reach first grade and beyond, we remove all these activities from school and we expect them still be interested in engineering when they get to high school and college.

In the Williamsburg Schools, we have developed a preschool to grade 6 elementary engineering curriculum based on robotics:

  • Preschool and kindergarten students use BeeBots from Terrapin Logo  to teach math and literacy.
  • Students in grades 1 to 4 use Lego WeDo robots integrating literacy, math, and science topics.
  • Students in grade 5 to 6 use Lego Mindstorm NXT robots to explore engineering, velocity, and math.

Besides teacher directed activities, every other year, students receive an open ended engineering challenge:

  • Kindergarten students plan and execute a path for their BeeBot to get from the “hive” to a “flower” getting around an obstacle.
  • Grade 2 students design, build, test and market their own amusement park ride.
  • Grade 4 students design, build, test and market their own burglar alarm.
  • Grade 6 students design, test, and build their own robot car to go as fast as possible.

Students work in teams for all these projects, which teaches the cooperative learning skills needed in today’s world.


There are two upcoming events that focus on Lego and Lego robotics in the region:

  1. On December 3 and 4, there is a LEGO KidsFest in Hartford, CT with tons of hands on Lego activities.
  2. On Saturday, December 10 in Agawam, MA from 9am-3pm, there’s a regional qualifier for the First Lego League, which is an afterschool program where kids from all over the world compete to build the best design for a yearly challenge.

If you are interested in exploring the use of Lego and Lego robotics to support your children’s natural building and engineering instincts, check out one of these events.

There are also ongoing weekly Lego events that happen in the area, including:

  • Mondays at 3pm – LEGOS: Does your kid love LEGOS? Try out LEGO BrikWars, a wargaming system that takes ordinary building blocks and turns them into a game of strategy and destruction. Takes place at Forbes Library. 413-587-1011. 20 West Street. Northampton, MA. (FREE)
  • Mondays from 5:30-6:30pm – LEGOS: The Central Library hosts LEGO Club tonight! Kids in grades 1-5 are invited to experiment with architecture and create a masterpiece. 413-263-6828. 220 State Street. Springfield, MA. (FREE)


John Heffernan ♦ Tech Talk: Supporting Creative Play with Technology

John is currently the technology teacher the Williamsburg Schools. He has also worked as an educational technology consultant, a third grade teacher, and as a software engineer.  He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Tufts and a Masters of Education from Lesley University.   John lives in Conway with his wife, 5 year old son, and 2 whippets.  In additional to his interest in technology, John is a juggler, musician, and animal tracker.  Read more about his engineering adventures at

[Photo credit: (ccl) Karen Blumberg]

GIS Day During National Geography Awareness Week at WSU

Westfield State University ‘Discovers the World’ through Geographic Information Systems

Braun, a Geography and Regional Planning/Environmental Science Professor, who also acts as the Campus GIS Coordinator, emphasizes of the importance of understanding modern technology. “Many people still think geography means drawing maps and memorizing the atlas. Today, we make maps using a GIS and we use maps more than ever as tools,” Braun said, citing that the power outage maps seen during last week’s storm were from GIS.g “I hope that folks realize that this technology is already part of our daily lives and that we can, fairly easily, use this technology ourselves,” he said. “GIS and the related technologies (GPS, Google Earth, Smart Phones) are cool and fun to use and give us a way to hopefully get folks interested in geography and regional planning.”

Westfield State University will host GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Day free events on Wednesday, November 16th and Thursday, November 17th as part of National Geography Awareness Week, inviting high school students and teachers to attend.

More than 10,000 organizations and 80 countries hold local events for GIS Day, which illustrates how GIS technology can be applied to our everyday lives. Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Google Earth, and Smart Phones are commonly used, related technologies.

On Wednesday from 7-9pm and Thursday from 5-7pm, there will be several events, including informal workshops teachings on how to use Google Earth to create 3D maps with embedded videos and photographs. These will take place in Bates Hall 022 and seats are limited by computer availability. Contact Carsten Braun at to reserve your seat.

A GPS Treasure Hunt around campus from 12-5pm and a GIST Center Open House from 3-5pm in Bates 022 also will be offered on Thursday.

All events are free and open to the public.

Learn more about GIS in the short informative video:

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