Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Boy and His Boat

   As described in previous posts, our housing development is built around a very large pond. One afternoon, while sitting on a bench at the edge of the pond watching the ducks and geese fly in and out, it dawned on me that the pond would be an ideal body of water on which to sail a model sailboat. 
   I hurried home, fired up my MacBook Pro, Googled ‘model sailboat that sails’ and clicked on the second entry, Tippecanoe Boats.  
   Once I was on their web site
   I selected three sailboats that appeared to be suitable for myself and grandsons John, Andrew, and Trent. 
   The T12 Cruiser has a 12-inch long hull with a main and jib sail. The T15 Racing Sloop has a 15-inch hull and also has a main and a jib sail.  The T-Class (T18) Racing Sloop—you guessed it—has an 18-inch hull, a main and a jib sail but also incorporates an adjustable rudder. Each hull is shaped from a solid block of red cedar.
   I called the 1-800-206-0006 number to order a T15 but the very nice lady taking my order suggested a T18 might be better suited for 12 year-old John. I purchased the T18 kit looking to give both John and myself a new and exciting experience. 
   I also purchased from Tippicanoe a varnishing kit that contains a natural bristle brush, sandpaper, and a glass vial of marine varnish. I also purchased a wire wall mount and a reel (more about the reel later). 
   John and I had no difficulty understanding the instruction sheet packed with the boat even though we were not that familiar with nautical terms. We worked slowly, carefully and enjoyed the construction process.
   John was fascinated with the varnishing process and was excited that he could give the hull such a deep, translucent shine.  He applied four coats of varnish to the hull and had plenty of varnish left over to repair any scratches or dings caused by colliding with the rocky bank of the pond. 
   I was unsure whether or not to glue the mast into the hull so I called the 1-800 number and the friendly and helpful man that answered told me that the mast was typically not glued into the hull. The reason being that an unglued mast makes it easy to take down the main sail and jib for easy transport.
   I did however make one mistake in the construction process. Despite the caution given in the construction instructions, I broke the brass shaft of the rudder. I immediately called the 1-800 number to order a replacement and the nice lady told me she would have a replacement in the mail that day. I offered to pay for it but she said there was no charge as Tippecanoe wanted to support novice sailors like myself. 
   Once the new rudder was installed, John and I were eager to sail the boat. Here is a picture of John and the completed sailboat.
   We arrived at the pond early the next morning but the wind was too light and inconsistent to get the boat under sail. Here, in central Oklahoma, the wind usually whistles continually at 15 plus knots. As the sun warmed the air, the wind arose and we soon had the boat in the middle of the pond. 
   Swimming in not allowed in the pond and I didn’t have enough confidence in my sailing skills to just release the boat on the upwind side of the pond. This is where the reel comes into the picture. 
   The reel is a wooden rod with a nylon reel wound with light fishing line. The reel revolves on a nylon bearing and is very smooth in its operation. The end of the fishing line is run through an eye hook on the bow of the boat and tied to the mainmast. This creates a long lever arm. When the boat sails as far as you want it to go you give a tug on the line, the lever arm turns the bow of the boat back towards you, the sails tack, and the boat sails right back to its starting position.
   John sailed the boat across the pond and back twice. The reel worked great and we are excited to have successfully built and sailed the T18. 
   The boat hangs on the wall (using the purchased wall mount) in John’s room and we both look forward to many hours of sailing fun. 
   Our success with the T18 has led me to order a T 15 for grandson Asher and a T 12 for 4 year-old grandson Trent. John is excited to have been given the task of helping the younger boys build and sail their boats.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hot Wheels Cars and Counting

   Grandson Trent just had his fourth birthday. Trent is not enrolled in preschool and he spends most of the day learning through active play. He loves to play with his Hot Wheels cars and has built quite a collection of almost 50 miniature cars and trucks. He also has a Hot Wheels storage case that doubles as a rubber band powered launcher. Sections of orange Hot Wheels track are connected to the launcher to form a double-lane race track about 8 feet in length.  The launcher is $10 at the major retail stores.
   Pressing the center button on the launcher shoots the two cars down the track. It should come as no surprise to learn that Trent insists on pressing the launch button.
   Trent loves to race the cars two at a time.
   First, he dumps the box of cars out onto the rug. Then, we each pick a car from the pile to race. The winner takes both cars and places them in what Trent calls a “parking lot.” In the following picture Trent has just launched two cars. The 8 cars I’ve won are shown in my parking lot.
   The cars Trent has won are shown in his parking lot. As you can see, he has won a lot more cars than I have.
   Because we have raced the set of cars a number of times, Trent has a good idea as to which are the faster running cars. For this reason I always let him pick first.
   It turns out that his typically larger parking lot provides a wonderful set of objects for him to count. He will count the cars in his parking lot and then count the cars in my parking lot to establish who is winning.
   I have a wrapped Hot Wheels car ready for Trent every time he comes to the house. If I don’t give it to him when he first arrives he will ask me if I have a car for him. As soon as he unwraps his new cars and proclaims it to be the “fastest” car ever, we drop down on the rug, dump the box of cars, and get to racing.
  Trent is very competitive and wants to always win. I enforce the rule that the first car off the end of the track is the winner. I let him have the close calls but if the winner is obvious, I enforce the rule.
   This simple and cheap activity helps Trent learn that rules are meant to be followed and that counting a set of objects (Hot Wheels cars) can determine the overall winner.
   When Trent is ready, probably four or five years from now, I will revisit this activity by asking, " Trent, could you determine the fastest car in your set of cars?"
   The answer is to divide the set of cars into pairs forming brackets, and then race the winners of each bracket until the overall winner is determined. Perhaps at an even later time I could ask him to look at the problem mathematically by asking, "Trent, given n cars, how many races will it take to determine an overall winner?"

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Pond Post II

   The first things you notice when you go to our pond are the geese and ducks that are floating on the water or resting or feeding along the banks. 
   There are Mallards that are easily recognized by the lustrous green head of the male and the grey or brown plumage of the female. The Mallard on the left in the following picture is a male, the center is a photo of a female, and the picture on the right shows a male Mallard in flight.
  There are two Brown African geese. The male is brown and the female is pure white. They are larger than the ducks and about the same size as the Canadian geese. 
  There are sometimes as many as 100 Canadian geese on the pond or feeding on the banks. These are the largest geese on the pond. They all have the same black neck with a white chin so I don’t know how to tell the males from the females. The Canadian geese flock together and don’t mix with the other ducks or the African Brown goose and its mate.
    Canadian geese can be aggressive towards other Canadian geese.  While feeding the ducks and geese, one of the Canadian geese will lower its head, elongate its neck, and lunge towards another goose. This action appears to be one of protecting its feeding area. The Canadian geese do not bully the other ducks and geese.
   There are six ducks that are what I call ‘barnyard ducks’. Three are pure white and there are three dark purple ducks. A brown female Mallard is part of this group too. It must have been imprinted by one of the barnyard ducks when it hatched. This group of barnyard ducks is featured in the following picture as they eat the seeds scattered by my grand son. Note that the temperature is cold enough to require a warm coat. The temperature can (and often does) vary 30º from one day to the next.
   For example, a few days after the preceding picture was taken, it was a warm, sunny afternoon at the pond so Andrew, the middle grandson, and Trent are shown letting the ducks feed out of their hands. The white duck has a lame leg so the boys always make sure it gets it fair share of the seeds. When feeding, the barnyard ducks can be petted but no one has been able to even hand feed the Canadian geese. Mallards will sometimes eat from you hand but will not let you touch them.
  Just after Christmas, 2016, the pond froze over except for a section of clear water near the center of the pond. In this picture, the ducks and geese near the bank are walking (sliding) on ice as other ducks and geese float in the water at the top of the picture. On very cold days, we feed the ducks and geese kernels of corn.
   There are two species of ducks that I can’t identify. One pair (in the foreground of the following picture) are black with no other color markings. This pair, probably a mated pair, normally stay away from the pond’s bank but they will swim closer when we feed the ducks and geese. They will eat the seeds we throw out into the water but we have never seen them leave the pond to feed on the bank like the other ducks and geese. These two ducks will dive completely under water and remain underwater for several seconds. I assume they are feeding but I don’t know what they are feeding on. The other ducks and geese will dip their heads under water with their bodies tilted at a 90º angle but they do not dive under the pond’s surface.
   There’s another pair of ducks (upper right in the following photo) that have black heads and white and gray body markings. This pair is also probably a mated pair. There is a bluish tint to the bills of these ducks that should help in identification. 
  For a short time, a pair of beavers lived in the two ponds. I noticed several trees gnawed in half. The homeowners association hired a professional trapper to place traps in both ponds. Two beavers were caught and relocated by the game and fish department.
   The association also hired someone to wrap the lower portions of each tree near the ponds with wire netting. Unfortunately, the wire wrap was too late for this tree.
  We know that there are fish, turtles, and snails living in the pond but I will report on these when the weather warms with the coming of Spring.
   In a future post, I will report on the single-celled and larger organisms living in the pond.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Pond

   In July of 2016 my wife and I moved back to the great state of Oklahoma, the state of our births. After almost 50 years of living in California we were both thrilled to make the move.
   We live in a development that is about 15 years old and by necessity are members of the Homeowners Association. We pay monthly dues to keep the grass cut in the areas of the development open to all association members, maintain the swimming pool, pay a lifeguard, and to provide the other services needed to keep a large development looking good.
   The dues also help pay for the upkeep of two ponds that association members have access to.
    Both ponds are rimmed with cement sidewalks. The swimming pool is in the northwest corner. The pond on the east side is almost as large as the west side pond but the banks leading to the water are steep and only serious anglers (or nature observers) visit the east pond.
   There are benches placed around the ponds that invite you to just sit and enjoy the beauty and peace a natural scene and environment can provide.

   Our youngest grandson is 4 years old.  His name is Trent. Soon after we moved in, Trent and I began to take a daily walk from our house to the pond. One morning we met a lady that was feeding the ducks and geese that live on the pond. She advised us as to what seed to purchase that was healthy for the ducks and geese to eat. That day we drove to the feed store and bought a large sack of feed and we are now in the habit of feeding the ducks and geese, almost everyday, soon after breakfast.
   As we sat on a bench and I watched Trent feed the ducks I decided to start making a survey of the plants and animals living in and on the pond. As Trent continued to feed the ducks I began to point out to him the variety of living things that made the pond their home.
   In the next post in this series I will describe the pond's bird life that Trent is able to recognize and name.
   If you live near a pond, lake, stream, or any other body of water that supports life, I encourage you to start your own survey to find out what is living on and in the body of water near you.  You may be as amazed as I am as to the variety of living things, both big and small, that thrive on or in a body of water.
   Our robotic exploration of the surface of Mars is looking for signs of water because the presence of water means the possible presence of life. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Warren Truss Bridge Constructed from Plastic Straws

   STEM is the current educational buzzword among math and science educators. The acronym stands for Science-Technology-Engineering and Mathematics. It’s an attempt to integrate the four disciplines with the goal of attracting more students into studies that lead to jobs in the booming tech industry.
   Educators that focus on the K–12 grades work within a longstanding tradition for mathematics and science but there is very little widespread agreement as to what constitutes the content of K–12 technology and no agreement as to which branches of engineering are appropriate for K–12 students to study. Educators have not identified the core concepts for the various branches of engineering. What does the electrical engineer know and do that makes it different from aeronautical engineering?
   To answer this question for myself I decided to research Civil Engineering because students are natural ‘builders’ as evidenced by their love of Legos and other construction sets. I shared this view in three earlier posts.
   Alphabet Blocks—May 30, 2015
   Building  Block Towers—July 4, 2015
   Alphabet Blocks and Civil Engineering 101—July 17, 2015
   The found out that the core of civil engineering is made up of five 'construction' forces and six 'structural' elements. I soon realized that the forces and structural elements could be taught to grades 4–12 by having them build and analyze a few simple structures. For example, a bridge.
   One of the six structural elements is called a truss. A truss is subjected to two of the five construction forces, compression and tension. Let's build a truss bridge and then, in later posts, identify the compression and tension forces in a simple truss. Hopefully the building process will stimulate kids to learn the engineering concepts.
   I designed a set of bridge components I call 'connectors'. The connectors set the angles for the plastic straws that represent the beams of the bridge. In the diagram shown below, the connectors (printed on card stock) are shown in the proper positions to build one of the two truss needed for the bridge.
   A measured section of plastic straw is slipped over one end of the connector and then fastened to the other connector using a short section of card stock and white glue. A finished truss is shown below.
    The truss is amazingly strong. Slip the hook of a metal coat hanger through the hole in the top center of the truss. Pull on the connector directly below the hook until the arms of the coat hanger begin to bend. You will 'feel' the strength of the truss as you pull.
   Make a second truss, use plastic straws to connect the two trusses together and you have the Warren Through Truss bridge as shown in the picture at the top of the post.
   All of the patterns for the connectors, instructions, and a bit of history of the Warren Truss can be obtained without cost to you by sending an email request to Once I receive your request I will email you the materials in the form of PDF files.
   This is an excellent project for any parent, grandparent, or other adult to do with kids. Sometimes it helps to have an extra pair of hands.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Which is the stronger force?

   I recently finished the book Why Science Does Not Disprove God by Dr. Amir Aczel. Towards the end of the book he recommends that the reader perform a simple experiment to prove that the force of magnetism is stronger than the force of gravity.

"The force of gravity, even though it is the one we feel the most, is in fact the weakest of the four forces of nature. Gravity is forty orders of magnitude weaker than the electromagnetic force. You can perform an experiment to prove it: Place a small paper clip on a table. 
The force of gravity, exerted on the paper clip by the entire planet underneath the table, is keeping it in place. Now take a small magnet and lower it down toward the paper clip. 
When you get close enough to it, the paper clip will jump up and stick to the magnet. 
This shows you that a very small magnet can overcome, using the electromagnetic force it generates, the gravitational pull on the paper clip that is exerted on it by the entire Earth."

   The “four forces of nature” he references are the force due to gravity, the electromagnetic force, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force. The last two forces operate only at the atomic level whereas the forces in the above experiment operate, as he says, at our level.
  As long as I've known about the gravitational and electromagnetic forces I have never until now thought about the "attractive" power created by the mass of the Earth and the greater "attractive" power contained in a 1 1/4" diameter magnet. Even grandadscience learns something new almost every day.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Code Master – Programming Logic Game

Even though young people are sometimes
called “digital natives,” most use computational
devices simply to browse, chat, run apps, and play games.
It is as if they can “read” but not “write.”
Dr. Mitchel Resnick,
Professor of Learning Research
MIT Media Lab
   In February of this year I wrote a post featuring Robot Turtles, a board game published by Thinkfun®.
   Robot Turtles is all about sequencing, a basic concept in learning to code. As even a four-year old knows, you don’t put your shoes on before your socks! Here’s a link to the Robot Turtles post.
   A great follow up to Robot Turtles is Code Master, a board game that teaches a larger set of  fundamental coding concepts that all programmers, young or old, know and use. These concepts, such as looping, iteration, and conditionals, are found in one form or another in all programming languages. In its board game format Code Master doesn't require a computer or a tablet to play and therefore doesn't report to the player (programmer) those dreaded syntax errors the programmer meet when coding at a keyboard. Best of all, Code Master is easy to understand and play because the actions in the game are described using everyday terms like run. slide, and jump.
   I have taught computer programming since the early 1980s. A large number of students were interested in programming during those early, exciting, days as more and more parents bought home computers. Kids typed in programs—mostly games—they found in popular magazines and in the process taught themselves how to program in BASIC (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instructional Code). Those kids were the real digital natives because they could both read and write. They grew up to fill the computer science classes in our colleges and universities and were there to power the tech booms. Now, enrollment in computer science classes in the United States is down and, as the professor says, a dwindling number of young people can write code.
   As a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or just friend to a youngster, you can give that boy or girl the gift of being able to write code. If the youngster is at least fours old, start with Robot Turtles. For ages 8 to adult, have them play Code Master. Better yet, play with them!
   The components of the Code Master are shown in the following photograph. The easiest way to describe the role of each component is to play the first game in the first level.

   The game board on which the pieces are placed and moved is called a Game Map. There’s a spiral-bound set of 10 maps. Pictured below is a diagram of Map 1, as it's shown in the above picture.
   Instead of writing a line of code, tokens, like those shown below, are used as instructions that move the player's piece on the map.
   Each map is used to play 6 different games of varying levels of difficulty. The four difficulty levels are color-coded. There are 15 games at each level for a total of 60 different games.
Set Up a Level           
   Let’s set up Map 1 to play the first Level 1 game. In the upper left corner of the map is a box (see A in the diagram below) with instructions for setting up the map to play the game (see B).
The left side of the box tells us to place the player’s piece on number 5 and the portal on number 3 as shown in B. The goal is to get the player from number 5 to the portal at number 3.
Write Your Program
   The colored circles on the right side of the box tells us to select two red run tokens and two green slide tokens and go to Scroll 1 in the spiral-bound book of 12 Guide Scrolls.
   The Guide Scroll is actually a flow chart that describes the flow of logic in the program. Once the run and slide tokens are placed on the guide scroll, the scroll becomes the program.
   After studying colored lines connecting the numbered circles on Map 1, let’s assume we decide to place the tokens on the scroll as shown in the following diagram.  We’ve now written a program.
Run Your Program
   Remember, the goal of the program is to get the player from position 5 to the portal at position 3.
   The first token in the Guide Scroll moves our player by running along the red line connecting position 5 and position 2 (see A in the diagram). The next token on the scroll is green therefore our player slides along the green line to position 0 (see C). 
   The third line of the program moves the player along the red line to position 1 (see D). The last token in the program directs our player to slide along the green line to position 3, the position of the portal (see E).
   Our program works! If the program hadn’t moved our player piece from position 5 to the portal then we would have needed to debug the program to find the error in the logic. As you move up through the levels you will meet soon meet the need to debug. Even professional programmers seldom write clean, bug-free code, the first time so accept debugging as a necessary programming activity.
   As the player progresses through the Levels new tokens are introduced. These tokens open up new programming concepts used to solve more difficult problems. For example, the important conditional piece of code called the If [condition true]… then [Yes] Else [No] is represented by this hex-shaped token.
   Regular readers of this blog know that I recommend educational computer games and board games that are especially suited for adults to play with kids and Code Master is a game best played with kids, grand kids, or anyone interested in learning the fundamentals of coding.
   With the Holiday season fast approaching, Code Master will make a wonderful gift to be played in front of a warm fire, with a hot cup of cocoa, in the company of family and friends.
  You can find Code Master in Target stores or on for $19.99 (currently on sale for $17.99).