Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Four Year Old Built Robot at NYC Maker Faire

Girl, robot, rockets

Makers Faire NYC 2012

My daughter and I went to the 2012 NYC Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science.

New York version of Burning Man

More education
Less drugs

Bicycle Zoo
I really like the idea of the Maker movement: build your own objects and art using technology. It is a broad movement, the quality of the projects vary. It is inclusive, artistic, science-y and often attention seeking. In other words a good candidate for a youth culture that I would be happy with.

Dancing girls

I have followed NYC makers on a TV show called nyc 2.0 hosted by Rick Karr.

I was a little surprised at how many baby friends we met at the Maker Faire, given that they are all working scientists,  guess it shouldn't have been surprising, but it felt good to see that I was not the only crazy dad who brought a young kid there.

Some sort of battle

Building her first SpinBot

My daughter has always liked robots, and we found a workshop for building a SpinBot. There was a hour of wait, but she was very excited.

Robotics purist would be horrified about the SpinBot, no power tools are required, it is only a tripod with a little engine on one leg and markers on the other two.

It does take good focus and fine motor skill to connect the wires from the battery to the engine.

Glue on a battery and you have the world's simplest mobile robot.

And that is all it took to build her first robot. Time to take it for a spin.

That is one creative robot.

I didn't know whether my daughter had aptitude for science or not, but for the first time I thought maybe she actually has both interest and some talent. It was a happy daddy moment.

Time with good concentration is usually followed by time with very wild behavior. We barely made it out of the subway before she got really rambunctious.

Music at the Maker Faire

Modified Commodore 64 and TV

We listened to several bands neo techno, indie rock, and circuit bended music. Going to see music shows was important for me when I was young. I am not sure how she responded to it, but it is great that she got exposed to it.

Big jump in comprehension between 3 and 4 years

As an experiment I started teaching my daughter about science when she was 3 years old. She did not really understand much.
Jean Piaget's developmental stage for abstract reasoning starts around 11 years old. So I thought she would only be able to understand science at that age. I took her to science museums, but mainly considered my experiment a failure and gave up on trying to teach her about science.

Recently she has started to insist that I read in her science books at night, and she really understands much more at 4 than at 3, and I can ask her questions and see that she actually has retained some of what we have read.

Why are my findings different than what I expected from Piaget?
  • Perhaps you do not need abstract reasoning to engage in science
  • Kids grow up faster now than when Piaget studied his own children in the 1920s
  • Piaget's theory were based on a very small sample size
  • I have not understood or remembered Piaget correctly

Cosmic rays in bubble chamber
The greatest reward is that she is excited about science and she seems like a curious kid. Here she is having a moment with the universe watching cosmic rays in a bubble chamber.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

First Semester of Science School for 3 Year Olds

When my daughter turned 3 she saw a short video on YouTube about water molecules. She liked it.

It has always been very hard to get her to bed. So I had the brilliant idea that I could start telling her about science for her bedtime story every night.

The problem with brilliant ideas is that daily life does not always welcome them.

My daughter is a very strong-willed child. When she wants something, she wants it now, and if she is not getting it, be prepared for something very loud. We have tried everything legal: encourage, motivate, begged, reasoned, yelled, threatened, cried. All to little avail. She is basically running the family with an iron fist. She is generally not a bad kid, but she acts up when she is tired or hungry.

I started these science chats as an experiment, not sure what to expect. Now it has been half a year since we started. What have we achieved?

Highlight: The World Science Festival 2011

The highlight of the semester was the World Science Festival 2011, a 2 day science fair for kids.

The first day of the fair was located on Governor's Island. We walked around and played mini golf. Finally we found the science fair booths. I really wanted her to see the NASA tent. This was the coolest thing when I grew up. But by then she was too exhausted, and we had to run her home, before we had a crying incident.

The second day was in Washington Square Park.

Robot Booth

There was a robotic competition for school teams. That was her favorite.

She saw the small Lego robots and immediate took a liking to them, and ran over to play with them.

My wife said: don't get too excited every little boy loves robots and superheroes. I thought true, but she is not a boy and she does not love superheroes.

Veterinarian Booth

We went to a place where they were telling the kids about working as a veterinarian. She was sitting there for a while with a big plush tiger.

After that she fell asleep in her stroller.

We walked around among all the different booths.

Science Quiz for Kids

On the big stage a woman asked science questions to the audience of little science kids.

The science kids were jumping up and down to get to answer them.

My daughter woke up right when they were closing down the festival.

Highlight of the Highlight

I was disappointed about how little we had gotten out of the fair so we went home and started assembling a chair made out of cardboard.  The chair was for her to stand on to reach the kitchen sink.

Cardboard chair assembly kit

She was good, and focused on the project for maybe 30 minutes.

This turned out to be the highlight of the day, and the first half year.

Is this science or preparation for factory work that no longer exists?

Engaging Kids in Science

We did inspire some other parents to talk about science with their kids.

One of her friends who is a 3 year old very energetic boy was saying:

There is an army in the body, ..., called the immune system, ...

I was impressed they had found a way to teach science that he could relate to.

I considered telling my daughter:

Your body is filled with princesses and each princess has a lot of housekeepers that keeps the body clean.

First Semester Science Education Result

To sum things up, during this last half year we have talked a little about:

  • Cells
  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Water molecules
  • The sun, plants and the stars
  • Day and night and the seasons
  • Magnetism
  • Electricity
  • Simple geometric shapes

We have done a few science experiments. They get repetitive after a little while, and generally involved balloons, water and magnets.

We have not read much in her science books. At night, when she is tired, she usually has an attention span of 1 second.  Unfortunately, this is when I have time to read with her. She will jump out of bed at least 10 times. She will literally walk her leg up the side of the bed until she is standing on her head.

Is Teaching Science to a 3 Year Old Absurd?

She has learned less than I had hoped for. When she is fresh she can be very focused on things that interest her, but I get very little of that time.

We have met a few high achieving parents with kids with a strong interest for math at 3 or 4 years old.  They are the kids that score in the 99 percentile on their school application IQ test when they are 4 years old. This allows them to enter the lottery for 300 citywide gifted and talented spots in New York City. For them science education certainly makes sense.

My daughter has shown no sign of being a math kid. She likes a lot of different things: drawing, painting, yoga, dance and music. I still have no idea if she has any aptitude for science or math. I am very happy she shows some interest in science.

My experience with teaching science to a 3 year old had some success. She is excited about science, whatever science is in her 3 year old mind. I have been happy to share my interest with her.

When you share any adult interest with a 3 year old kid you should know that their brain has limited capacity for abstract and logical thoughts. And you should be prepared for disappointment when you find out that your young child does not share your skill set or interest.

My plan moving forward is, lower the ambition level a little but continue telling her a little bit about science when an opportunity presents itself.

Cardboard chair with graffiti in front of kitchen sink

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Education in New York vs. Denmark

I live in New York City and I am raising my 3 year old daughter here. It is a highly competitive, expensive, time consuming and stressful. I grew up in Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s and my experience growing up and going to school there feels like a different planet. It has taken me years to even start to understand how the education system works here in New York City. In this blog posting I will try describe some of the differences.

Play date in Denmark

Main differences between New York City and Denmark


My education in hippie era Denmark was a bumpy freewheeling ride. The education system was very egalitarian. If you were somewhat intelligent, getting a good education was a given and it was free.

Kids playing in Denmark

New York City

In New York there is a big difference in quality between the standard public schools and the elite schools.

The elite schools are either:
  • Competitive private schools that can cost you $35,000 a year just in tuition.
  • Few public gifted schools that are extremely competitive.

For both options your kid has to take an IQ test at age 4. For the gifted schools they have to score in the top 99 percentile just to be in a lottery.

We cannot afford private schools, so I said to my wife that maybe we have a chance of getting our daughter into one of those gifted schools, say a 1 in 10 chance. She said:

It is more like a 1 in 10,000 chance.

New York City is filled with highly accomplished and resourceful parents with smart kids aggressively competing for very few spots.

Culture clash elite university vs. community college

When my wife and I started to talk about having kids, some epic culture clashes erupted. They were mainly fought out at our local diner over breakfast. She told me that good college here cost around $40,000 a year. I was flabbergasted thinking that there is no way that I could pay for that. I asked her:

What is wrong with a cheap community college like BMCC?

My arguments for a community college

1: I said with Princeton University you are just paying for the brand. Linear algebra has been around for a long time and how much better could they teach it at Princeton than at BMCC, Borough of Manhattan Community College.

2: I told her that I had gone to public elementary schools and the public University of Copenhagen and that had worked fine for me.

3: At a company I had worked at there were 3 team leads in my group one had gone to Harvard, one to MIT and one to BMCC and I did not think that guy who went to BMCC was less accomplished than the other.

These arguments really bothered my wife, and after many heated discussion; we finally agreed that we disagreed on this topic.

Faith of my argument for a community college

Time has not been so kind to my arguments.

1: One of my friends did teach at community colleges in New York. He said many high schools really do not prepare the kids adequately. You have to teach to the bottom third of the class, so better kids are bored. He did not think that the kids there got a good educations.

2: A couple of month ago I stumbled over US New's World's Best Universities list and was very surprised to see that University of Copenhagen was on the top 50 list of US and international universities. I had gone to a great university thinking that all schools were like that.

3: A couple of years after our discussions I met the team lead who went to BMCC, and I told him the story, and he said: I did not go BMCC, I went to Cooper Union.
Cooper Union is one of the most competitive fully founded universities in the USA. When I told this to my wife she burst out laughing.

So my wife was right and I was wrong, this unfortunately does not help my daughter.

Excerpt from my education in Denmark

My education in Denmark was a mixed bag. I will try to illustrate it with a few examples.

Sign at playground in Copenhagen
Kids playing
Please use syringe trashcan

Do not teach your kid to read before school

I started in school when I was 7, I did not learn to read before that. The prevailing thought in Denmark back then was that it was bad for the dynamics in the class if some kids could read and other could not, and that everyone should start school in the same place.

My first Danish teacher in elementary school

My first Danish teacher was a hippie with a long beard. His way of teaching the kids how to read and write was to give us a pens and paper, and then he would proceed to read Mickey Mouse comics. I liked school, but I was not so happy about this. I am not sure if he was lazy or whether this was based on some pedagogic idea.

New school in third grade

In third grade I moved to a new school and my second Danish teacher was a lovable older woman. The kids there had actually learned to read and write, and I was far behind when I started.
She retired and we got a new Danish teacher that was a short chubby man with a Napoleon complex. He would brag about his sports achievements. His teaching style was to keep discipline by slapping the kids if they went wild. I got slapped once, but after sulking for a while I got a little licorice and was happy again. Still I thought that he was a good teacher. He did not get along with the other teachers.
The math teacher was a much mellower guy, he would send kids out to buy him beer during class, and nobody would bat an eyebrow over this.

Separation of kids in eight grade

There were no gifted programs. I heard that kids could get moved to a higher grade, but it was very uncommon; nobody at my schools did. In eight grade the class was split. Pupils would take some topics at two different levels.

High school

Here the level of learning really increased. But still I spent a lot of time going to concerts and hanging out.
We got exposed to a lot of ideas in literature, psychoanalysis, history, politics and art. I really had a great time here.
I specialized in math and physics, which was taught at a serious level. For instance, we did higher order differential equations in math.

University of Copenhagen

It was not too hard to get in.  First I studied chemistry and physics. The first lecture I had was in chemistry. The first thing the professor said was that in half a year the person sitting next to you would have dropped out.
I went from a kid that was hanging out to somebody that was always studying. I thought that the education was really good, but if you were the kid that dropped out after half a year, then maybe this system was not so great.

There were no colleges in Denmark, you specialized and started doing quantitative science right away. There was no school sports team. In math, physics and chemistry departments, there was not much of a social scene either.

Visiting Denmark now

I go back to Denmark once a year. When I get back now I feel like I am stuck between two worlds. Culture is a big thing in Denmark, for instance my sister is sailing a home built submarine and doing so many cool art projects. She is clearly concerned about the way I am raising my daughter.

In Denmark I feel like a supremely uncool materialistic striver. I am the crazy pressure cooker parent, a throw back to the dark age of education, the unsuccessful version of the Tiger Mother.

In New York I feel like I am a lazy hippie parent that is not willing to jump through 10 burning hoops for a long shot to give my daughter of a chance at a good education.

Nautical art happening in Copenhagen
with home built submarine

I have an old friend in Copenhagen who is a school teacher. He has a 10 years old daughter who is just the most fantastic girl. He is saying that his main goal is to keep her a kid for as long as possible.  This is very far from the prevailing idea on child rearing in New York.


If you can send your kids through the elite school system here in NYC they are probably getting a better education than in Denmark; as good as anyplace in the world. However the expense to the family and the kids and society are great.

The biggest ice cream in Denmark is called "An American",
after the land of the plenty

The education I got in Denmark was very good. The education stress level for kids was low since it was not competitive and the difficulty level was raised gradually. There were plenty of problems, but it was not dysfunctional.

I know that my daughter is a very privileged kid, but she is not coming from money and has to compete in a global job market. In this respect a good education is not a luxury. If you are not successful you cannot afford to live in NYC.
We do not have the resources to compete for the elite school system in New York City. Our current education strategy is denial.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Glimpse Of A Toddler Science Sunday

I have a 3 years old daughter who has taken a bit of an interest in science. I started this blog after reading the back cover of the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I thought that the book advocated a very bad way to teach science and math to kids. My first post had a lot of ranting, but not a lot about the simple science projects that my daughter has been doing. In this post I will show a glimpse from last Sunday's science project.

From Party Girl To Science Girl

I had expected my daughter to be an introspective, nerdy kid, but for a while she got the nickname "party girl" since she loved to climb and run around. We started Sunday in a park in Tribeca with a great jungle gym. She still loves to climb.

Lately we have had a hard time getting her to take her midday nap, which generally means grumpiness and wildness later. She took a short nap and when she woke up she asked to do a science project. I was exhausted, since I did not get any break, but we started a science project.

First Experiment Mixing Oil And Water

The first experiment was mixing oil and water. This illustrates that water molecules and oil molecules have different chemical properties, water being polar and oil being non polar. This was first time she tried this experiment. 

Mix water and oil, see that they separate

Add soap

Now oil and water mix to an emulsion

The Laboratory

I bought 2 small science kits. They look like a pile a plastic junk, but they are actually a good way to get started with simple science projects.

The Laboratory

Archimedes Revisited

We had already made an experiment with putting clay in water and seeing that it sinks, then turn it into a boat shape and see that it floats. She tried that one more time.
Building a clay boat
Everything was going great, but slowly her attention span was getting worse. 

Stomping on clay

Next thing, the mild mannered science girl had turned into The Hulk stomping on the clay to flatten it. This worked pretty well, except that the clay got stuck to the floor. We abandoned Archimedes.

Planting Seeds

She also repeated the seed planting experiment. Since the cup with the plants from the last seed planting experiment got knocked over.

Planting seeds

This went well but her attention span was getting worse again.

Cute is turning into wild
We tried to continue, but jars from the science kit were now flying around the laboratory. Maybe we should quit while we are ahead.

Toddler on a rampage and olive oil on camera lens
Time to run her out of the house. We took her to a bar to see some live acoustic music and let her run around and dance. She proceeded to rediscover slam dancing; while one of her little friends was dancing the pogo, a punk dance from the 1970s where you just jump up and down with a stiff torso.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Can and should a 3 year old girl be into science?

This blog is about my 3 years old daughter, who has taken a bit of an interest in science. She is a big Why Kid. A day shortly after she turned 3, I was watching her alone. We looked around on the Internet. One thing we found was a one minute low quality computer simulation of water freezing on YouTube. To my surprise she liked it.

I went out and bought her a couple of picture science books and small science project kits. She liked that too.

A week ago she proclaimed:
I am into science and music.

This only started 3 weeks ago, and who knows if it will last.

Drawing on blackboard

Night time stories from Pippi Longstocking to science

My daughter's big problem is that she is a very bad sleeper, every night I have to stay in her bed and read her stories till she falls to sleep. Her favorite stories are about Pippi Longstocking, a little orphan girl who refuses to go to school, eats candy all day long and beats up policemen and school teachers for fun.  I loved those Pippi stories when I was a kid. When I read them now I wonder if Pippi really is such a great role model for kids. Recently I have started to mix Pippi stories with talks about science.

Bedtime Science Story Topics

The topics for the bedtime stories are very simple chemistry, physics and biology explained without much detail.
  • Simple molecules, like water
  • Temperature and molecule motion
  • Cells
  • Bacteria
  • Virus
  • Planets
  • The sun
  • The stars
  • Magnets
  • Electricity
  • Energy as something that can make other things happen

Science projects

The science kits are basically just a pile of plastic junk. Still, they make it easy to get started. These are the experiments we have made so far:
  • Made boats out of clay that is heavier than water
  • Get a metal paper clip floating on water to illustrate surface tension
  • Spinning top with rainbow colors turns them into white
  • Planted seeds and watered them
  • Look at plants and other things through a magnifying glass
  • Took the temperature of hot and cold water
  • Got a little ball suspended in the air over an air stream
She likes the the projects. She often asks if we can do a science project.

Should a 3 year old girl be interested in science?

I will split this question into 3 sub questions.

Can a 3 year old understand science?
I read Piaget's theory about child development and he said that a kid brain only develops logic capabilities when they are 7 to 11 years old.

I do not think that logic reasoning is a requirement for understanding basic science.

Does learning science early help them later?
This is debatable. I am very curious by nature. Before 10 I was interested in science, but it was hard to do any of it by myself. I had a friend who was older and had a chemistry laboratory in his tiny basement room; it was the coolest thing to be there. I got a little chemistry set myself, but did not really know what to do with it. It did install the notion that science was cool, and I ended up studying science later.

Is it bad to take playtime away from kids?
At 3 years old, science is just another game. 

You have no idea what little kids are interested in and what they are good at. Exposing your kids to a lot of different things is valuable. 

Reaction to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

A small incidence sent me into a rage. I discovered a new book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, who is a law professor at Yale. She is using extreme methods to push her 2 daughters to academic excellence. They had to be the best in their class in everything except drama and physical education. Math was a topic that she really drilled them in. Just reading the back cover sent me into a rage; so much that I decided to start this new blog: Bedtime Science Stories, just to get my anger out.

There are hundreds of critical reviews of the book already, so let me just give one thought: If you raise your kids on the principles in Tiger Mother you risk turning them into obnoxious know it alls or possibly insufferable or damaged kids.

Science for everybody

Amy Chua and I both want to raise daughters that excel in science and math; but we see science very differently.

To me, science is about exploring the world. 
It is about being curious.
It is about questioning things, including your own findings.

Science should not be an elite activity. Making it very competitive will make a new generation of kids hate math and science. Understanding our world is worthwhile activity even if you are not the best in your class. 

Preliminary results

Take the time machine half a year into the future to see preliminary result in my fourth blog post: First Semester of Science School for 3 Year Olds