Saturday, November 21, 2009


Some things are worth waiting for and machinarium, the point-and click game I announced in an earlier post (see the April 2009 Folder, Educational Computer Games.1) has arrived. It was worth the wait. I am currently playing it through, savoring every minute, and looking forward to the Christmas visit of Joshua and Jordann so that they can play along with grandad. We won’t finish the game before they have to go home but I’ll put it on their new laptop.

I’ve read several reviews of the game, all positive, and agree that the gorgeous, hand-drawn graphics, inventive animations, cool sound track, challenging problems and puzzles, all make machinarium a candidate for Game of the Year award in the Independent Developers category.

Machinarium is the story of a gusty little robot and his adventures rescuing a varied crew of robot friends (including a robot cat) from a band of black-hatted robotic bullies.

The game is a great arena to help kids exercise their problem-solving skills. These are general skills (perseverance, start somewhere, experiment using trial and error, draw a picture, etc.) that are not tied to a specific curriculum, like math.

Kids will love the game but may become frustrated with some of the problems and puzzles. Even though the game has a well-designed in-game hint system, I would like to focus on techniques that we, as grandparents, can use with kids to help them solve the problems and puzzles.

Machinarium is full of control panels and switch boxes that operate equipment needed to progress in the game. But none of the machines come with operating instructions! You have to push buttons, flip switches, pull handles, observe what happens, and figure out how to control each machine. For example, the box in the picture below controls an electromagnet. Just to the right of the handle is a penciled diagram some robot has added as a reminder as to the rules for manipulating the arrows. Note that the arrows have different colors, one set yellow, the other red. The arrows have to be pressed in a certain sequence. But what’s the sequence?

One problem-solving skill is to reframe the problem in a different context. This puzzle is a version of a classic peg-jumping puzzle. To reframe the puzzle, I drilled seven holes in a block of wood, sanded off the heads of three red golf tees and three yellow golf tees. The goal is to jump the pegs so that the three yellow are in the three holes occupied by the three red and vice versa. You can only jump one peg forward into an empty hole, at a time, and a peg can never move backwards.

A friend at the office has a third grader that was stumped with this puzzle. I made the wood version for mom to take home and was told the next day that Jacob quickly solved the peg-jumping problem, went to the computer, duplicated his solution, turned on the electromagnet and lifted a metal crate from the top of a stack of two crates. A single crate is needed to get to the next puzzle.

Here's another puzzle that's best worked on with paper and pencil. Well into the game the robot hero comes across this panel. Clicking on a bulb lights it it up. Click another bulb and the line connecting the two bulbs lights up.

At first, kids will click around, lighting bulbs and lines, but will find that nothing happens. Looking around the room it becomes evident that a graffiti artist has scrawled a series of geometric diagrams on the wall. Aha! These are line-tracing problems. The example below shows the solution to tracing the diagram on the left without tracing over a preciously drawn line. In other word, the figure can be drawn without lifting the pencil from the paper and re-crossing any line. The diagram on right represents the order to click on the bulbs, 1-2-3-4-2-5-4-1-6-3-1.

Now the kids can trace the other diagrams they need to solve to move on.

As I find a puzzle or problem that’s best solved off-computer I’ll post a short description of the method you can use with kids.

Resist the temptation to use the Help system until you or the kids have exhausted every idea and frustration is beginning to spoil the game. Solving a puzzle or problem is a great confidence builder for kids. Solving a difficult problem is one of the sources of real self-esteem.

Machinarium is available for $20 as a download on Steam ( I bought the Steam version for my gaming PC. I also went to and bought the $20 download from Amanita Design, the Czech company that produced the game, for my Mac laptop. Their download gives you PC, Mac, and Linux versions of the game plus the soundtrack in mp3 format for loading into your iPod. A demo of the first two areas met in the game is also available at the site.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hot Wheels®

Two of his favorite indoor activities are drinking chocolate milk and playing with Hot Wheels® cars and trucks. This picture shows how Asher has learned to place a car lentgthwise on the top of track, release his grip, and let gravity roll it down the track.

At one time or another, all of our kids and grandkids have had a lot of fun playing with Hot Wheels®.
On your next trip to one of the major retailers go to the toy depatment, find the Hot Wheels® section, and search for a kit that has a C-clamp as one of its components. The clamp lets you or the kids attach the track to a chair, shelf, table or other convenient structure. On the top of the clamp is a grooved section that you slide the end of a track onto and holds the track firmly to the top of the clamp. Add additional track lengths so that the total track length is six to ten feet

Hot Wheels® are all about the force and motion concepts of displacement, speed, velocity, acceleration, mass, gravitational potential energy, kinetic energy, and force. In future posts, I will describe how kids can have fun and explore these concepts with Hot Wheels® cars and trucks.
Don’t think that running cars down a track is an activity only boys like to do. Asher’s grandmother (known here as grandmothermath), taught sixth graders and every year she would organize a Hot Wheel® Derby. Each boy and girl would select a car or truck from a large supply, measure its mass, length, width, and height and then enter it in the Derby. Students would race their vehicles down a ramp made from scrap wood. Winners of each race would then compete and eventually a single class winner would have the fastest car in the class.
It’s late afternoon in California and to Asher there’s nothing better than a Popsicle and swinging with sister Kate, grandmother, and Kate, grandad’s sister from Oklahoma. Grandadscience looks forward to many years of toy car and truck dynamics with Asher and Kate.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Full Pipe

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice falls down a rabbit hole, and finds herself in a parallel universe with a host of strange characters with their own brand of logic. To Alice, the language and behavior of the characters she meets is illogical and her major problem is accepting that Wonderland makes perfect sense to its inhabitants, if not to her.

At the start of Full Pipe, Dude (your playable character) falls through an open manhole, into the Full Pipe world. Accept the fact that the other 44 characters (like Eggcracker and Guv-the drawer) you will meet (scattered throughout the 39 “rooms” of the Full Pipe universe) also have their own twisted brand of logic. Full Pipe can be described as the Dude’s Adventures in Weird World.

In one of the early rooms visited by Dude, he meets Guv-the-drawer. Pick up that extra drawer next to Guv as you will need it. Of course, you suspect you will need to put certain items into that drawer and learn what Guv does with them, and you’re right.

You quickly find your way into the basement where the maintenance men are engaged in a game of Dominos. They ignore you but they have something you need. Joshua and Jordann are trying to first figure out what it is, and then how to get it.

There are eight mini-games in Full Pipe. Each mini-game may seem difficult at first but you (or more likely, one of the kids) soon discover how to control the mouse and time its movement to beat the game. Doing so opens up another room or retrieves a needed object. In the mini-game shown below, you send Dude up the ladder and jump him onto the end of the lever. The trick is to time his jump so that the Small Fry walking onto the other end of the lever is catapulted into the jar. Fill the jar and the hand lifts it to clear another pipe opening that leads into a new room.

There’s a handy map in the upper-right corner that makes navigating from room to room quick and easy. You can only navigate to rooms you have actually visited so the map builds as you progress through the game.

The giant sleeping puppy is blocking the Dude’s transit of this room. What to do?

One of these three characters has a crank the Dude needs. Hows to get it!

Playing Full Pipe is not an endurance test so if a problem becomes frustrating, use a “spoiler”. Spoilers are hints or clues that “spoil” your pleasure in solving a problem, but advances the game. Spoilers can spoil part of the game. But so does reaching a point in a game where you just cannot progress any further. The short-lived, let-down experienced by using a spoiler is soon compensated by additional progress in the game. Grandad attempts to complete every game without using a single spoiler, but I do use a spoiler as a last resort. Here’s a spoiler for Full Pipe.

Full Pipe is available on Steam ( at the low price of $5. Download the demo, play through a few puzzles, and then decide to buy or not to buy.

Just a Note About Gaming with Younger Grandkids

I am learning new ways to ensure that my grandkids experience games like Full Pipe and decide for themselves the extent to which they want to play through it or any other computer game. The choice is theirs to make, not mine. Recently I spent several days with John Patrick, our four-year old grandson visiting from his home in Belgium. During a rare, quiet, moment, when the other three grandkids were occupied elsewhere, I asked John if he would like to go through a story about a man that has his dog kidnapped by aliens. The problem is to help him rescue his dog (see Samorost 2 in the May 2009 folder). Even though John couldn’t solve most of the puzzles the first time through, he asked to play through the story five times!. By the third play-through, he was telling me what to do to solve each puzzle! Certain computer games can be treated as interactive storybooks! Here John and grandad are playing Samorost 2.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Stellarium – Your Personal Planetarium

Late summer and early fall is a great time to get kids to look out the window of Space Ship Earth. Before even thinking about buying the kids or grandkids a telescope (subject of a later post), teach them first how to find the visible planets, the brighter stars, and the major constellations so they can comfortably move around the night and early morning sky.

Knowing how to locate objects with the naked eye is a prerequisite to learning how to use an optical telescope. Learning how to use Stellarium will teach kids (or interested adults) the basics of backyard astronomical observation. Kids need to know the basics so they can develop enough of an interest in astronomy to warrant buying them a telescope.

And, Stellarium is free! Go to and download the Mac or Windows version.

I will now help you set Stellarium to your geographical location and then take you through an example of how to use the program to set up a specific viewing scenario.

Assuming you've downloaded Stellarium, open the program by double-clicking on its icon.

Press the F6 key to open the Location window.

In the upper-right corner, type in your location. Your location (or locations near the one you typed) will appear in the window on the right. Move the cursor to this window, and click on the correct location (or nearest location). This sets Stellarium to your latitude, longitude, and time zone. ***IMPORTANT*** Be sure to check the Use as default box in the lower-left corner so that Stellarium loads your location every time you open the program.

Press the F5 key to bring up the Date and Time window. You can set Stellarium to any date and time, but for the viewing scenario I want to create, click on the small arrows to change the numbers in your Date and Time window to correspond to the numbers in the following picture.

It is now 5:40 AM. August 27, 2009 in Stellarium. Use the left or right arrow keys to look due east. This is what you will see.

The planets Mars and Venus are visible along with Orion's Belt and the bright stars Procyon and Sirius.

That's all there is to it. Use the Date and Time window to create any scenario you like, and then go outside and look at the real thing!

There are many other features that you and the kids will enjoy exploring.

For example, here's an uniteresting screen shot of the moon and star cluster NGC 6231(object 6231 in the New General Catalog of deep space objects).

Press the "c" key and the outlines of the constellations appear. That's a bit more interesting and informative.

Press the "v" key and the names of the constellations are added to the oulines. Okay. Now I have an idea as to what part of the sky I'm looking at.

Press the "r" key and artistic representations of the constellations are added to the sky. All of these keys are toggles so pressing them again turns off the features.

Documentation is included in the download but I made a list of the most-used functions. If you would like a PDF of Stellarium Quick Keys, email

Many thanks to Roger, a good friend, for getting me to think about an astronomy post. Also, many thanks to the Stellerium developers [listed on the Home page] for their gift.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Water-grow Animals

Animals molded from polyacrylamide (the water-absorbing polymer used in diapers) will dramatically increase in size when immersed in water for several days. Such animals I call water-grow animals.

A great measurement activity for kids is to daily measure, record, and graph the change in length and width of a water-grow animal. Last summer, our two oldest grandkids, Joshua (Grade 3) and Jordann (Grade 2) placed a 15-inch alligator in grandmother’s bathtub and a week later it had grown to a length of 48 inches!

The kids liked the activity so much they wanted to repeat it during a recent visit. Only this time, each would choose a different animal.

Jordann chose a colorful frog that would fit in the palm of her hand.

Joshua liked a venomous cobra.

Before placing her frog in water, Jordann measured and recorded its length and width. As you can see in this picture, the frog is 3 1⁄2 inches long.

At this age, measuring to the nearest quarter-inch is sufficiently accurate. Later on, when measurement comparisons are made (e.g., the change in length from day to day), adding or subtracting quarters is easy for kids to compute.

Joshua’s snake measured 12 inches in length (no attempt was made to straighten the snake).

They recorded measurement data in separate tables and then graphed the data. I designed and printed the data and graph pages for them.

If you would like PDF files of these pages, email

Grandmotherscience was diligent in making sure Joshua and Jordann recorded and graphed measurements at the same time every day so that a daily growth rate could be computed.

At the end of their six-day visit, Joshua’s cobra had grown to over 48 inches!

And Jordann’s frog would no longer fit in the palm of her hand!

Both the snake and the frog are now drying on the patio and the kids will be eager to see if they return to normal size when they return in three or four weeks.

Water-grow animals can be purchased at most large retail outlets. If, like grandad, you like the convenience of ordering online, the following link has a large selection and good prices for water-grow animals.

Grandadscience will happily post water-grow animal pictures and measurement data from other kids (first names only).

Besides length and width, what other measurements could be made on a water-grow animal? What questions could be asked?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Figurate Numbers-Part 2-Pyramid Numbers

I introduced figurate numbers (see the May 2009 folder) as a hands-on way to introduce kids to the mathematical beauty and number patterns that can be discovered by arranging objects according to a rule.

As learned in the previous post, the rule for forming triangular numbers is to successively sum the counting (natural) numbers, starting with the number 1. How the first four triangular numbers are formed is shown in the following diagram.

In one of the April 2009 posts I described Paula’s Puzzle. Four golf balls are glued to form a triangular-based pyramid. Five of these form a larger, 20-ball pyramid (see below). The puzzle is to figure out how to build the larger pyramid from the five smaller pyramids.

Is there a simple relationship between the triangular numbers and Paula’s Puzzle? The answer is “yes” and the kids can easily demonstrate the relationship.


You need a glue gun and twenty plastic practice golf balls. The golf balls cost a couple of buck a dozen and are available at any of the chain stores.

If your kids constructed Paula’s Puzzle, then they already know how to safely use a hot glue gun. If not, this is a good time for them to learn.

Have them build the second triangular number (3) by gluing together two golf balls and then gluing the third in place as shown in this picture.

Help them to build the golf ball models for the triangular numbers 6 and 10.

Once the kids have built the models, have them arrange the models in order, as shown below.

Ask them to build successive triangular based pyramids. It will be so easy for them to do this that they will think it’s trivial. Oh, if only we could convince them much of math was as easy to do!


Triangular numbers are made by successively summing the set of counting numbers and pyramid numbers (tetrahedral numbers) are made by successively summing triangular numbers.

Give the kids a blank sheet of paper and help them make a record of the relationship between the triangular numbers and the pyramid numbers. Use the following table as a guide.

Here’s a short video that illustrates how pyramid numbers are built from triangular numbers.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fantastic Contraption

What’s fantastic about this game is that there are so many playing it. When I discovered over thirty-two thousand players had submitted a solution to the first problem, I knew the game dynamic had to be good in order to attract so many players.

You build your Fantastic Contraption from an assortment of wheels and rods (see below). When set in motion, your contraption will move according to basic, physical principles. It will topple or fall if overbalanced. If it’s too heavy for the drive wheels, it will stall trying to climb a gentle slope.

At the higher levels, it’s doubtful your contraption will solve the problem the first time it’s set in motion. A failed design means you have to think through why it didn’t work, and then design and apply a fix. Test again, and perhaps fix again, until the problem is solved.

Each of the first 20 (free) problems requires you to build a contraption that will carry a small red circle or square (I call it the football) from a light-blue box on the left side of the field of play into a light-red box on the right side of the play field (see below).

The contraption can carry, push, drag, sling, or shoot the “football” into the light-red box, in any manner you choose. In problem five, called The Wall (see picture above), you build a contraption in the light-blue box, that carries the red square through the wall of yellow blocks, across the gap, and into the light-red box.

This is the contraption I built for solving The Wall. I used five clock-wise wheels, six brown fixed rods, and one blue flexible rod.

The following picture shows my contraption poised and ready to go. I saved my solution to The Wall and published it online for others to see and use. Over 62,000 solutions to this problem have been published! The solutions I looked at are much more clever than mine.

To see my contraption in action, view the following video.

Go to and open a free account (Username–Password). Having an account let’s you save your progress, upload your solutions for others to examine, and to look at the methods of other players used to solve the problem. Fantastic Contraption is also available on the IPhone and Ipod Touch.

Grandad is currently trying to solve Problem 13, Big Ball. Help!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Color Burst

Kids begin playing with water as soon as they can sit up to take a bath. They learn that water flows into and out of containers, escapes through even the tiniest hole or crack in a container, can be hot, cold, or lukewarm, “wets” some objects and not others, and has many other physical properties.

Water (not ice) is a fluid. To the scientist, a fluid is a gas, a liquid, or a granular solid (like sand or granular sugar) that has the ability to flow. Exploring “flows” is what makes the bathtub and sandbox such a playground for kids. Observing “flows” is a great activity for helping kids learn how to observe (and not just look at) events in the natural world.

In the following video, two drops of blue food coloring sitting at the bottom of a layer of cooking oil, coalesce into a single drop and then burst into a bottle containing ordinary water. The pattern that follows is reproducible. View the video and then help the kids to set up the same apparatus.

I never tire of watching fluid phenomena. Each one is different but still the same.

To make your own Color Burst gather these materials.

Clear bottle (a 2-Liter plastic soda bottle works well)

Cooking oil

Food coloring

Tell the kids to:

• fill the bottle to the bottom of its neck with lukewarm water,

• carefully pour an inch of cooking oil on top of the water,

• let the bottle set for a few minutes to allow time for any currents to die down,

• add a drop of their favorite color of food coloring, and

• wait patiently for the food coloring to burst through the oil into the water.

To repeat the process, draw off the cooking oil with an eyedropper and refresh the water.

The drop of food coloring being heavier than cooking oil, sinks to the bottom of the layer of oil. The boundary that separates the oil from the water is called the fluid interface. There are forces at the interface that prevent the drop of food coloring from immediately breaking through into the water.

The heavier food coloring eventually wedges its way through the interface into the water. Notice that the drop of food coloring does not just fall through the interface, it bursts through!

Be sure the kids note the structure of the ensuing flow of food coloring through the water. Even though mixing occurs, thin tendrils of food coloring end in circular pads that are characteristic and appear whenever the process is repeated.

Over time, I will share numerous activities that use water play as an effective way to introduce kids to some very important concepts in science. In Color Burst, three fluids with different densities interact in a simple but dramatic way to illustrate an important fluid concept called Rayleigh-Taylor Instability. (Don’t let the name scare you as Rayleigh and Taylor were two pioneers in the field of fluid dynamics.) More about Rayleigh-Taylor Instability in later posts.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

More Evidence that Ghosts Exist

I have further evidence that ghosts exist (see the post Do You Believe In Ghosts? in the April folder). In that first post, I defined “ghosts” as unseen entities that can exert an influence on objects in the physical world.

I have a cardboard box about a foot high with width and length dimensions slightly larger than a standard sheet of copy paper. I was going to use the box as a bin for storing recyclable paper. Anymore, Grandad doesn't believe in wasted motion so I don't wad a sheet of paper before dropping it in the box. I simply slip the sheet into the mouth of the box and let go.

The first time I did this, I was amazed at the result. Check this video to observe what happened.

Having been bitten and infected by the dreaded “science” bug early in life, all I could say when I first observed this action was, “That is so cool!” Again, those unseen entities I call ghosts were able to work together to slow the fall of the sheet of paper.

Help your kids or grandkids make a Ghost Box of their own. Find a box that is close to the dimensions of the box in the video, which are, 11 1⁄4" x 8 5⁄8" x 8 ".

The “ghosts” are invisible air particles floating around in the box. Let’s call them “air ghosts”. Even though unseen, they are quite capable of exerting an upward force on the sheet of paper, as seen in the video.

When you slip the sheet of paper into the mouth of the box, the forces acting on the paper are gravity, which acts to pull it down, and the upward push of the air ghosts.

The two forces are not balanced. The pull of gravity is stronger than the push of the air ghosts. The air ghosts can’t stop the paper from falling but they can and do slow it down. The upward force of the air ghosts is called air resistance.

As the paper falls, ghosts are squeezed around the edges of the paper. It’s the fact that the escape route around the edges is small and restricted that reveals their presence.

Ah ha! Even though I couldn’t see you, I know you are there!