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).

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Hummingbirds are Fun to Watch

   Grandson Asher called one evening to ask a science question. He wanted to know what holds up column of water in a glass of water inverted in a basin of water?
   I knew the answer would be less than satisfying to Asher. He’s 10 years old and doesn’t know the kinetic theory of gases that ‘explains’ what supports the column of water in the glass. To tell him that one atmosphere of pressure equal to 14 pounds per square inch is pressing on him and the surface of the water in the basin would probably confuse him because he can’t ‘feel’ this pressure.      To him, such an explanation would sound like a ‘ghost story’ because I’m asking him to believe in something that he can’t see.
   I’ve written two posts about the ‘ghosts’ kids are asked to believe in when studying science. Here are the links.
   I changed the subject and told Asher about the hummingbird feeder I recently purchased at Target (Perky-Pet Copper Glass Tube Hummingbird Feeder – $14) that uses the inverted-glass-in-a-fluid principle.
   The feeder is constructed from quality materials and will last as long as I don’t break the glass nectar tube. The feeder comes with a package of nectar (sugar water) packed inside the glass tube (see picture)
   You do not need to buy the red-colored hummingbird nectar (sugar water) as it’s an unnecessary expense. Besides, the kids will enjoy making the sugar water for the bird to drink.  Here’s the recipe for enough sugar water to fill the glass tube in the feeder.
1 ½ cups water
½ cup sugar
   Stir the sugar into the water and heat until it begins to boil. Let cool. Do not add red food coloring as the red dye is harmful to the birds.
   We hung the feeder on the patio and within a day or two we were thrilled to see a hummingbird drinking at the feeder.
   I have a $100 digital camera so I cannot take great videos or stills of the birds at the feeder. I envy those of you that have better equipment because you could capture the birds in much greater detail. Click on this Youtube video to see a hummingbird at our feeder.

   For several days we were convinced that the same bird was visiting the feeder. The bird would never sit on the circular perch that surrounds the feeding stations. It would hover about six inches from the feeder, dart in for a quick drink, hover, dart in, hover, dart in, until it had its fill. Until one day we observed a hummingbird perched at a drinking station drinking its fill. We knew at least two birds were visiting the feeder.
  We thought we could use coloration to identify specific birds but so far there isn’t enough variation in color to distinguish between the birds.
   Hummingbirds are not very social. As we observed the two birds, the hovering bird and the perching bird, we saw that they would not drink together. They would fuss over which one was going to drink.
Once you and the kids begin to routinely observe hummingbirds drinking at the feeder, it’s natural to want to learn about the habits and behaviors of the birds. A knowledgeable and trustworthy place
to start is the Smithsonian National Zoo web site. Here’s the link.
   I learned on this web site that hummingbirds migrate.  I was wondering how the birds would feed naturally during the winter months. Now, I will look for their departure and note the date we begin to notice their absence,
   Observation is perhaps the least practiced of the science process skills. Encourage kids to regularly observe the feeder and to keep a Log of their observations. They could record the Date, Time, Weather, and an Observation.
   The Observation  could include, coloration, size, and behavior such as the bird's ability to fly backwards.
   They could run a strip of masking tape along the long axis of the glass tube, calibrate the glass tube in milliliters, and track the amount of sugar water the birds drink over a day, a week, a month.
   We have had much more than $14 worth of pleasure watching the hummingbirds. You can even sit in a chair within a few feet of the feeder and the birds will drink as long as you remain still.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Laser Maze™ Jr. – from Thinkfun!

   In February of this year I posted a review of Robot Turtles, a board game from the Thinkfun® company that introduces important computer programming concepts to the very young. That post is one of the most viewed posts on this blog. Here is the link to that post in case you missed it.
   As is evident from the box cover, this post is a review of another game from Thinkfun® called Laser Maze™Jr.
   As I unpacked the game for the first time, I was impressed with the excellent design and the quality of construction of the plastic game base and the mirror pieces. I also like the fact that the Laser is built into the base and can’t be removed. This will keep it from being used for other purposes.
   The designers also paid attention to the small details that make a difference. Like the small rubber pads on the bottom four corners of the plastic base to keep it from sliding around on a smooth surface. And I really appreciate that the small screw on the battery cover is locked into the cover plate so that it can’t fall to the floor where the small-part gremlins quickly hide it in an inaccessible spot (like under the fridge).
   A full-color Instruction & Solutions manual is packed with the game, is easy to read, and within minutes I was trying solve one of the Challenge problems.

   The sturdy plastic base has a 5 by 5 grid of raised squares that lock and hold the game pieces in place. Slide one of the double-sided Challenge cards into a slot under the clear grid and you’re ready to play.
   The game pieces are sturdy and will survive the occasional rough handling kids will give them.
   I’ve drawn top views of the pieces so that you can see how the Laser beam interacts with the different types of pieces.
   The red-based Rocket Targets light up when the laser beam enters the elongated red face of the piece.
   The purple-based Satellite Mirrors reflect the incoming Laser beam 90º.
   The green-based Beam Splitter splits the incoming Laser beam into a beam that travels straight through the piece and another beam that reflects at 90º.
   The grey-based Space Rocks block the Laser beam from all four directions.
   There are 20 Challenge Cards with a different challenge printed on both sides of each card for a total of 40 Challenges. The division of difficulty levels is shown below.
   10 Green Cards – Easy
   10 Orange Cards – Medium
   10 Blue Cards– Hard
   10 Red Cards – Super Hard
  To illustrate how the game plays, I will solve Challenge Number 9. I’ve reproduced the card below. The card slides into a slot located under the raised grid so that what's printed on the card is visible through the clear plastic base.
   Along the upper left edge of the card is a red triangle that indicates the position of the Laser. In the lower right corner of the grid are two Rocket Target illustrations. Place a Rocket Target piece over the illustration of each Rocket Target on the card. Be sure that the elongated red window in each target matches the direction shown in the illustrations.
   At the bottom left corner of the card is the type and number of game pieces the player is to ADD TO the GRID. For Challenge 9, the player is to place the beam splitter and one satellite mirror onto the grid. To count as a solution, every piece on the grid, with the exception of the Space Rocks, must interact with the Laser beam.
   At the bottom right corner of the card is the difficulty level and the Challenge number.
   That’s it! You now know all you need to know to help the kids work through the other 39 Challenges.
   Here’s a tip for the adults. Remove the Instructions and Solutions booklet from the box. Show the kids how to play the game. When they get stuck, refer to the solutions booklet, look at the game board, and give them a hint, not a solution!
   Thinkfun® recommends Laser Maze™ Jr. for ages 6 and older. Older includes myself as I find the Hard and Super Hard Challenges interesting and fun to solve.
   If parents, grandparents, and kids enjoy Laser Maze™Jr., Thinkfun®  also offers the Laser Maze™Beam-Bending Logic Game for ages 8 and older.
   In my opinion, this game is one that should be in every household that has elementary school children. Grand kids Asher, Kate, John, and Andrew will love this game.
   As an educator, I would like to point out that Laser Maze™Jr. and similar games promote the build, test, debug, loop that if applied with persistence, usually solves a problem. This is in direct contrast to the standard question-to-single-answer process that occupies most of a student’s day at school. In other words, the build, test, debug loop is what problem-solvers do. 
   Here's one last plus for the game. Every parent that has travelled the highways with youngsters has heard from the back seat the “Are we there yet?” question. The locked-block design of the game board and pieces makes the game pieces resistant to the jostling of the car or van. This makes the Laser Maze™ Jr. a great game to pack when taking kids on the road. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

King's Quest – A Computer Adventure Game

   Back during the days of the Apple IIe, Sierra software published an adventure game called King's Quest. Those were the days of pixilated graphics and 8-bit sound. The game was a top-seller and I remember playing it.  
   Sierra has given developers The Odd Gentlemen the joyful task of adding to the King's Quest story. The Odd Gentlemen have just released the first of five new episodes in the story. All five episodes are narrated by Graham, the aging King of Daventry, as he relives his adventures by telling them to his granddaughter Gwendolyn.
   In Episode 1, the King tells how he began his quest as a good-hearted but bumbling young man determined to become a Knight. He leaves home to go to the court at Daventry to compete with four other knights for a position at the King’s court. 
   His adventures in besting the other four contestants (they are already knights) is the theme of Episode 1. The knights compete in events that test strength, wit, and speed.
   It’s a fun story told with wit, and filled with lots of interesting characters, each with a humorous idiosyncrasy. For example, there are three bridge trolls that each carry a bridge on their back. They respond to blasts on a horn and move to place their bridge across a gap so that Graham can move from one locale to another.
   The graphics are gorgeous and draw you into the story and the animation of Graham is fluid and helps develop his character. I was especially fond of watching Graham try to catch a frog as the animation wonderfully captured the movement of a klutz. 
   It’s an adventure game so the player uses the WASD keys to move Graham around and the space bar to pick up objects. Graham carries objects in a specially designed cape sewn for him by his mother. It will hold objects as big as a giant pumpkin he will need to traverse dark places.  
   As is true in any adventure game, Graham, has to find specific objects to achieve specific results. There is no real violence in the game as the characters interact through slapstick animations that draw laughs.
   The puzzles are not too difficult and fun to solve as when a bridge troll asks for something big and sweet to eat, you might want to visit the Bakery.
   There are a few quick-time events where you have to press the W, A, S, or D keys to guide Graham as he careens down a river on a raft to escape a dragon, step across stones, climb walls, and to navigate through other perils.  
  King’s Quest is game that will entertain adults as well as youngster. I think the game works best if the kids play with mom, dad, or a grand parent. The older one can watch the kids navigate around Daventry and be there to help solve a puzzle like getting the Magic Mirror from under a dragon. The game is much like many of the movies made for kids in that there is something in the telling of the story for adults to enjoy too.
   I purchased the game on Steam for the grand kids Asher, Kate, Emma, John, and Andrew knowing they will find the story exciting, the graphics beautifully drawn, the music excellent, and the problems engaging and relatively easy to solve by simply being persistent.
   Of all the computer games I've played with the grand kids, Machinarium is my favorite. I reviewed and recommended this game in 2009. Here's the link to the post.
   King's Quest Episode 1 has now knocked Machinarium out of first place. I look forward to the release of Episode 2 trusting that the developers will deliver another great game for grandadscience and the grand kids to enjoy.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Alphabet Blocks and Civil Engineering 101

   Children are born engineers. Everything they see, they want to change. They want to remake their world. They want to move dirt and pile sand. They want to build damns and make lakes. They want to launch ships of sticks. They want to stack blocks and cans and boxes. The want to build towers and bridges. They want to control the universe. They want to make something of themselves.

Dr. Henry Petroski
Professor of Civil Engineering
Duke University
American Scientist, Volume 91
May-June 2003
   I am interested in how K–12 educators plan to implement the engineering component of the Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics (STEM) effort. The same tradition in public education that supports the teaching of mathematics and science at the K–12 levels does not exist for the teaching of engineering at those levels.
   Much of the STEM curriculum I've looked at focuses on design. But, as I heard one engineering professor state, "Not all design is engineering and not all engineering is design."
   There are electrical, aeronautical, marine, chemical, civil, and software engineers. But from that short list the branch that I would choose to start to build a curriculum around is civil engineering. That is the type of engineering that kids do without formal, adult instruction or supervision. Kids design and build structures in their world of play.
   If kids are 'born' engineers as Dr. Petroski believes then kids are born civil engineers. The task then becomes one of identifying what civil engineers know and do and then translating their knowledge and skill into age appropriate, activity based curriculum.
   As I researched what civil engineers know and do, I learned that there are five basic construction forces and six basic structural members. Many of these are conceptually appropriate at the K-8 level and all are appropriate at the 9-12 level.
    For example, to the civil engineer, a stack of blocks is a structural member called a column. The dominant force acting inside the column is compression, one of the five construction forces. A stable tower will not collapse from internal forces (the weight the blocks) but it is susceptible to external forces—another youngster can come along and knock down the tower (see video at end of post).
   Consider a single cube sitting on a flat surface. In the diagram, the cube is transparent so we can focus on its bottom face. The full weight of the cube acts on the bottom face (red). Since weight is a force, and the cube is made of a homogeneous material, the weight
is distributed over the area of the bottom face.
  Science defines pressure as force per unit area. This is expressed in the following formula.

   If a block is stacked on top of the first block, then the pressure on the bottom face (red) of the bottom block doubles. 

   And so on through as many blocks as there are in the stack. This is a linear relationship. Note that the pressure on the bottom face of any block equals its weight and the weight of the blocks stacked above it. This weight presses down on every block in the stack except the top block. Hence the term compression.
  The civil engineer calls this pressure stress.

   The force acting on the bottom face of the bottom cube of the tower is equal to the weight of all of the cubes in the stack. That, of course, equals the weight of the number of cubes in the stack.
   The greatest internal stress (pressure) acts on the material near the bottom of the bottom block. The material that the block is made of has to be able to withstand this stress. And the foundation (ground) the column is standing on also has to withstand the total stress of the column. Hence the need to build on a firm foundation.
   Not all forces acting on the column are internal forces. Wind, earthquake, and collision can exert external forces on the column.
   Next to the pleasure of building a tall column of blocks is the pleasure many feel in knocking it over. In the following video, a horizontal force is applied a column of cylindrical blocks. A friend captured the collapse of the column, in slow motion, on his iPhone. Slowing down the collapse reveals that several interesting events happen in the short time it takes for the column to collapse. Can you spot them?