Sunday, December 19, 2010

Santa Claus, Physics, and More

So I did it this year, I came clean to Asa that there is no Santa Claus. You might think that at age 11, this would be a no-brainer, and of course she already knew. But I've always felt it's important to keep the magical thinking alive as long as the kid wants to. And as somebody who still anthropomorphizes my favorite plaid stuffed hippo, Horace, I'm a sucker for magical thinking. Of course, this means that Mackenzie has to give up his spot as Santa. He's stayed up the last few Christmases, stuffing stockings and having fun being the big brother. I don't know how this Christmas Eve will play out, it's an ever-evolving thing as the kids get older.

For those of you who still have younger kids, or kids interested in physics, or just like this kind of thing, here's a great physics-based proof that Santa Claus really exists.

In other physics news, our FIRST FTC robotics team went up to an event last weekend at Portland State University. In addition to working on their robotics stuff, the kids got to tour a whole bunch of the engineering labs there. We were very impressed! They got to help move a laser (over 800 pounds!), talked with a chemistry grad student about his work detecting nanoparticles in soil and water using an atomic mass spectrometer, saw a wind tunnel where they are testing wind turbine and wind energy farm designs, and best of all they got to spend a lot of time with someone from the robotics department discussing a robot called "Shrödinger's Cat" . Those of you that are physics buffs will understand why that's so funny. The cat lives in a box and is mobile, he runs around the building using two cameras, touch sensors, and other methods for object avoidance. He has a mental map of where he is, and can even go in the elevators and ask people to press the buttons to take him to another floor. He can interact with other robots in the lab, including a talking head of Nils Bohr.

I loved hearing all of the questions our kids came up with for the roboticist. Mackenzie was especially interested in the vision processing algorithms and how he could distinguish between objects and blank space (like a doorway). One of the things this tour really showed me was how much science being involved with FIRST has brought into his life. He already knew about Nanotechnology because back when he was on a FIRST FLL team, they did a research project on Nanoparticles and one of the things they discovered was all about the potential dangers of these particles when they end up in our water and soil. Another year, they did a project on alternative energy and it was his part of the project to research wind generators. So all of the things he was seeing in these science and engineering labs, he had already had a taste of through FIRST.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Homework Into Video Games, By Mackenzie

For science right now, we're studying atoms, molecules, and compounds and their properties. One of the things that the kids are supposed to do for this new Charter School program is to show "mastery" of the subject in many different ways: by writing papers, making models, drawing timelines, making illustrations, doing projects, etc. So when I asked Mackenzie how he wanted to illustrate the properties of matter, he suggested that he write a simple video game that allowed the user to see way the molecules move in the different states of water.

If you want to see it in action, you can download his game from Google Docs. It doesn't have any viruses, I promise. He programmed it in GameMaker 8, which he highly recommends. He says it allows you to do object-oriented programming, it's easy to learn, and you can make stand-alone executables like the simple one that he made for this project. You can even sell them (unlike stuff you make in programs like Scratch).

Leave it to this kid to find a way to turn something into a programming project. I have to say, it's pretty cool though. He wants to say a special thank-you to his Aunty Meese and Uncle Nick who gave him GameMaker for his birthday last year. Obviously, it's been put to good use!

Saturday, December 04, 2010

All Smiles at the Karate Recital

The kids had a karate recital today. Also known as the "belt test", it's where they get to show what they learned this term, and do all of their techniques in front of the black belts who will score them and give them feedback. Throughout most of our time in karate, I haven't gotten to watch them because I'm testing also, but now that the only test looming in front of me is the eventual black belt test, I could just sit in the audience and enjoy seeing them do their thing.

The thing that most strikes me when watching Mackenzie is just how big, strong, and fast he's getting. That and the deep voice that comes out of him when he kiais (the karate "hiya" yell). He is definitely operating at the brown belt level and is moving toward the day when he will test for his black belt too. He's gotten very serious about karate lately, especially since he and I have been going to the more rigorous brown and black belt classes together. Focusing on the basics as well as harder and harder techniques has a way of making everything look sharp.

As for Asa, she is coming into her own as well. Karate is not her main focus like it is for Mackenzie. She saves that for dance, singing, and theatre of course. But I'm glad she has stayed with karate even though her schedule sometimes gets crazy. It's important to me that both of the kids can defend themselves if the need ever arises, and sadly in our society she's more likely to need to do that than Mackenzie. I liked watching her perform the escapes from hand grabs and the take-downs that accompany them.

For both of the kids, our karate dojo is also more like a family than just a class that they attend. They've made lifelong friends here, friends that are in photos from recitals going back almost half a decade now. As they move into the tween and teen years, I see the kids that they're hanging around with and I smile. They're confident, respectful, polite, and nice. Being involved with karate, most specifically at our dojo, has more than a little to do with that. The family-friendly atmosphere and focus on values ensures that the kids grow up with more than just a few fancy moves in their repertoire.