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Learn something while having fun!

Kids Coding at Silicon Valley Code Camp

SVCC

Silicon Valley Code Camp is an awesome, free, 2-day event where thousands of programmers and would-be-programmers gather to learn more about development related topics. Beyond just programming languages, methods, and algorithms, there may be classes on

  • legal issues,
  • branding and marketing,
  • managing developers,
  • user interfaces,
  • interview skills,
  • and hardware platforms such as the Raspberry Pi and Arduino.

Mobile application development is usually a popular topic and there have been classes covering various business and development aspects of mobile apps.

SVCC by and for

It’s an event were “developers learn from fellow developers” and anyone is welcome to submit sessions for consideration. So the list of classes varies each year and the the level of experience varies between each class. Some are lectures and others are hands-on. There are people with lots of teaching experience, some with subject matter expertise who may not be the most effective educators, and others who are pretty green and standing up in front of a class for the first time. However, the atmosphere on campus overall is very positive and you’re bound to learn something!

The camp takes place at Foothill College, has been running since 2006, and saw almost 3,000 attendees in 2014.

Kids Trackbinary code 1 200x283

Last year, I narrowed my focus and there were only a coupe of classes in which I was interested, but our schedules didn’t line up. I was happy to discover that they had a kids track added and I registered Kaiden. Apparently there have been kids sessions every year, but in 2014 they organized it more and put kids in their own area.

In order to sign up a kid for a session, you must

  • Create a separate SV Code Camp account (login) for each kid
  • Assign a guardian to the kid
  • Make a minimum $25 donation to SVCC Giving

Setup

There were two back-to-back sessions on Scratch programming staring with a basic class and then a more advanced lesson. We arrived a little later than expected, but before the class was scheduled to start – and the room was packed! There were no empty imagineear.com/pharmacy/ seats and people were sitting on the platform at the back of the room and others were even sitting on the floor!

One of the parents at the back saw me scanning the room for a seat and quickly mentioned that there were parents sitting in chairs and I should ask them to move. So we got Kaiden a seat quickly and got our laptop set up while I crouched beside him. It was annoying that even after multiple announcements, some parents sat in their chairs at the front of the room partially blocking the view of kids behind them. Eventually, the ignorant adults made way for the children.

Scratch

Kaiden had played with Scratch a couple of time before. We had gone through a few introductory lessons and then he created his own custom program called Lightning Blue Cat. So much of the session ended up being a bit slow for him, but that just meant that we had some opportunity to add extra functionality or browse through various sprites.

The class was fairly-well organized and taught with enough assistants walking around to provide 1-on-1 help with setup or coding issues.

SVCC Coding
Concentrating…

 

SVCC Screen
Our view of the big screen

 

We would have loved to stay for the next, more advanced session, but like most of the other kids there, it was a long session and we needed a long break! Most of the room cleared out and I didn’t see too many more kids trickling in. Hopefully at the next camp they will run the beginner and advanced Scratch sessions with a good break in between, but still on the same day, so kids can eat and run around before going back to coding.

Either way, we’ll definitely be there!

SVCC Class 600
End of the session and time for a break!

 

SVCC Badges 600
A popular spot for parent-kid pictures

 

Explore the Universe at Lick Observatory

Last year my birthday fell on a Sunday, but my wife booked a session with one of her clients(!) So I decided to make the most of the day with my son and do something we would both enjoy. I packed a lunch and we drove to Lick Observatory at the top of Mt Hamilton (4209′) to check out some telescopes! We chatted for most of the drive, but about 10 minutes before our arrival, he fell fast asleep. Fortunately, I had a book to read… and about 45 minutes later, the fun began…

Kaiden’s favorite subject after math was astronomy so we were both looking forward to seeing the telescopes and we were not disappointed. There is a great free talk on the history of the observatory that’s presented in the 36-inch telescope dome where they house the Great Lick Refractor. The few, blurry pictures I remembered to take really don’t do justice to the experience, but neither do the high quality pictures on their website – you need to see it in person. The Great Lick Refractor is 57 feet long and weighs over 25,000 lbs!

Great Lick Refractor
Great Lick Refractor

There are some amazing pictures of Lick taken by Laurie Hatch and Debra and Peter Ceravolo.

We also hiked mans health over to the smaller observatories to learn more about the history, including the logistics it took to get the site built and the precision equipment set up. I think the video was playing in the Shane Dome where you can see the 120 Inch Reflector. I thought Kaiden might get bored by the looped video presentation, but after watching the last half, we watched it from the beginning.

You can find lots more info on the public information page, including details about the Summer Concert Series which looks interesting.

We ended up spending even more time outside enjoying the sunshine and great views!

Lick Observatory - K1

 

Lick Observatory - K3
Scouting
Lick Observatory - K5
Hanging out at 4209′

Lick Observatory - K4

I would highly recommend this experience for any kid who is interested in astronomy. It further renewed Kaiden’s desire to be an astronaut and he like to be clear that he does not want to be an astronomer, but he still plans on discovering a star larger than NML Cygni or UY Scuti!

Tips for Planning a Trip

  • Click the links above to find out what events are schedule
  • At least read the visitor page
  • Have a full tank of gas
  • Check the weather
  • Take a jacket – it gets windy
  • Pack a lunch
  • Take binoculars and enjoy the view!

Have fun!

Discover Science, Technology, and Engineering at AT&T Park

bay area science festival logo

Another week of local fun is the Bay Area Science Festival. The festival took place from October 23rd through November 1st and included numerous free science-related events in the area. It was a busy week and we only found time to get to one of the final events: Discovery Days at AT&T Park. I’d have to guess that this is the one event of the week not to miss!

As described on the Bay Area Science Festival page:

Experience over 150 hands-on exhibits and activities from leading science and technology organizations from across the Bay Area. Universities, science museums, research labs, after school organizations, and local companies join forces for an unprecedented opportunity to meet scientists and engineers. Topics include health & medicine, engineering, technology, biotechnology, climate science, and so much more. This year, every exhibit will be framed as investigative questions to encourage explorations and curiosity that we hope will continue throughout the school year.

Because we arrived late, we did a rapid assessment of the exhibits as we walked past the numerous tables to decide where to spend our time. We both got sidetracked by anything robotic, but physics, astronomy, and genetics exhibits were interesting as well.

astronomical society of the pacific

Despite having seen several FIRST Robotics competitions as well as displays of team robots, these still capture my son’s interest. Here is Team 841‘s robot:

team 841
First Robotics Team 841 from Richmond High School
future astronaut
Future Astronaut

It was very popular (i.e. crowded) and a bit chaotic for a quiet 5 year old to get to a table and join in the activities, but we also arrived late and everyone was trying to squeeze in their last 15 minutes of fun at the exhibits. There were dozens of various science related exhibits geared toward all age ranges which explains the event’s popularity.

tents 1

tents 2

tents 3

 

 

 

 

 

stealing third
Stealing Third

Beyond the science and discovery, we actually had the most fun just being able to run around on the field at AT&T Park! There is definitely something unique about standing on home plate, racing around the diamond, or chasing each other in the outfield. So despite the late arrival, we made the most of a beautiful sunny day in San Francisco.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many of the other events and lectures during the festival are not geared toward children, but a few that looked like fun are:

  • Marin Wildlife Discovery Day: Learn about the rich diversity of wildlife in Marin
  • Explorer Days – Bioblitzing at Muir Woods: Learn about the forest’s history, how to identify common plants, and help identify and document as many different plant and animal species as possible.
  • Hands-on Science at the Farmer’s Market: Discover how plants live, how worms produce compost, or learn about solar beads and solar cookers, among other scientific investigations.

Next year, we’ll plan ahead and go early!

 bay area science festival banner

 

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) Open House

This past weekend, our family went to the MBARI Open House which was amazing. There was lots to see, do, and learn and we all had a blast. The free, annual event is held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, halfway between Santa Cruz and Monterey.

There were several displays, many with hands-on activities building ocean-related crafts or examining various samples.

Examining rock formations
Examining rock formations

 

Microscopic remains in the sediment
Microscopic remains in the sediment

We got a close up look at several of the ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) as well as the the awesome Dorado AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle).

The Benthic Rover posed for a quick shot:

Benthic Rover
Benthic Rover

We spent quite a bit of time examining the Doc Ricketts ROV and asking questions about it.

Doc Ricketts
Doc Ricketts

 

Doc Ricketts 2

Doc Ricketts 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some important tips about visiting the MBARI Open House next year:

  • Go early – there is plenty to see and do and you don’t want to rush through it. There was also a section to build and test adhd your own ROV in a big tank, but we missed it because we arrived too late.
  • Stop at every station – what may look boring at first, such as a few rocks on a table, might just fascinate you and your child.
  • Check the list of presentations when you arrive so you can schedule them in – another reason to arrive early!
  • Pack a lunch and leave time to hang out on the beach afterward – it’s a 2 minute walk! We spent 45 minutes at the beach watching a big pod of whales playing in the water which was an awesome bonus.
  • Take binoculars – in case you see whales, of course.
  • Ask lots of questions – everyone is very friendly, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable and you get access to scientists and engineers who have worked on some very cool projects.

For the schedule and list of events, see MBARI Open House.

Finally, here is an interesting project found on the MBARI site: instructions to build your own ROV.

 

Combine History with Future Technology at the S.T.E.A.M. Festival

STEAM Festival dog tag

One weekend, my wife casually mentioned the Silicon Valley S.T.E.A.M. Festival. We’re all about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) and it’s billed as a “Family Friendly FREE Science and Aviation Festival” so we decided to check it out. It turned out to be a great deal of fun!

There was a very interesting mix of things to see and do. On one hand, there were rows of beautiful, classic cars all polished to perfection. Kaiden had no interest in seeing those so we got him to take a picture of us by the cars.

STEAM Festival cars

Then there were historic airplanes on display and we spent quite a bit of time looking at those. The planes were so fascinating to see up close that I didn’t even think to take pictures. Kaiden asked about the missiles on one of the planes so I explained what they were for. He then turned to his mom and asked her to manifest planes without missiles. There’s some hope for our future!

There was also a fire truck that we got to see up close and awesome with firefighters happily answering questions. Kaiden politely declined the cheap, plastic firefighting helmet he was offered, but had a blast looking at the controls up close.

Older children, I think 10 or 12 years old, were lining up for a free flight which was a very cool thing to offer. Since we couldn’t send Kaiden up in the air, we went to line up to sit inside the cockpit weight loss of airplane. Several people spent a very long time in the plane, so it was a long wait. I would suggesting going here first if you have a young child.

STEAM Festival cockpit

When we finally got to the display booths, I was happy to find all the hi-tech displays with robots, laser cutters, 3D printers, and science exhibits. Kaiden was fascinated by the laser engraving and mustered up the courage to ask the young woman running the machine if he could trade for a blue dog tag.

I recognized some of the displays from Maker Faire, but that didn’t stop Kaiden from stopping at each one again. There were a few hands-on exercises where kids got to build small contraptions with straws or Popsicle sticks to demonstrate basic scientific principles, but we were running out of time and after having been to Maker Faire and spending a couple of hours on similar projects, we moved on quickly. It was great to see a few biology-related exhibits and of course, the FIRST Robotics robots throwing large balls around.

Overall, this was a really fun day out, especially since it’s a free event and we’ll look forward to going back next year.

A few recommendations:

  • Arrive early, before it gets too busy or too hot
  • Go straight to line up for the free airplane rides (if your child is old enough), to sit in the cockpit, or to view the fire truck
  • Take food and water since I don’t think there was anything remotely healthy served there

 

Combine Art, Science, Technology, and Fun at Maker Faire

About a month after the last Bay Area Maker Faire, Kaiden asked me when we would be going back.This was despite the fact that much of the event was overwhelming for him (and for me) since many of the rooms were overcrowded and difficult to navigate with a 3 year old. Still, we both looked forward to going back since there are so many interesting things to see, do, and learn.

We parked at the Oracle campus and took the shuttle (highly recommended) and instead of waiting 45 minutes like we did the year before, there were two shuttles waiting for us and we were quickly on our way – a fabulous way to start the Maker Faire experience!

To avoid the crowded rooms, we started with the outdoor activities — and we could have easily spent half a day there. First, we made paper rockets held together with some masking tape and launched them using compressed air. Everyone’s rocket was based on essentially the same design, but some clearly flew much better than others and ours did great. Kaiden named it Jupiter 8.

Jupiter 8 Rocket
Jupiter 8 Rocket

If you don’t have Make Magazine Volume 15, you can read the online instructions for your own launcher and rockets here: Compressed Air Rocket or you can find the PDF here. If you prefer to spend more money and less time on this erectile dysfunction project, you can purchase version 2 at AirRocketWorks.com. It doesn’t look like there are instructions for creating version 2 from scratch. However, there is an updated paper rocket. And with this video on the compressed air rocket, there is really no reason not to build one, unless, like us, you have too many projects going already!

We also visited several tables where we built interesting gadgets such as a scissor lift out of Popsicle sticks and a manual water pump out of a plastic bottle.

Water Pump
Water Pump

 

This fabulous behemoth kept Kaiden’s attention for a while as it spat out flames in time with the music

El Pulpo Mecanico Maker Faire
El Pulpo Mecanico at Maker Faire

El Pulpo Mecanico is a 25 foot tall, propane-fueled, first-spitting mechanical octopus! You can find more on this character at: http://www.elpulpomecanico.com/

Kaiden also got a kick out of this huge cardboard robot:

 

Giant Cardboard Robot
Giant Cardboard Robot

There were hundreds of exhibits indoors including robots, lightshows, 3D printers and product displays, science shows, and lots of arts and crafts. It was a great way to be continually distracted and to get ideas for experiments and projects.

I think it would be impossible to visit Maker Faire and not find something that interests you so check it out. There are events all over! Maker Faires Around the World

Robot Programming for Young Kids

Children learn from their parents (including things they weren’t meant to learn until later) and their exposure to various topics is largely a function of their parents interests. So for Kaiden, one of the things that meant was some exposure to electronics and robotics.

He would sit on my lap at my workbench and ask a million questions, or was it 4 questions a quarter million times each? Once he learned a little, he would make requests to see a small drawer full of capacitors or resistors (boring) or switches.

He was interested in the robotics and I promised that one day I would teach him to build and program his own robot since he had an unlimited supply of ideas about how many LEDs his robot would have, what colors they would be, and whether he preferred tracks or wheels or legs on particular robots.
Most institutions and most parents are really not sure at what age kids can or should be doing various tasks and robot programming for young kids is no exception. My goal was to get him started whenever he was ready and interested. The interest was apparent so to get him ready I planned to continue helping Kaiden with his reading (more on this later) and basic math and logic so that he would have a foundation from which to start.

robot block party

I took a couple of hours off one afternoon to take Kaiden to the Stanford Robot Block Party (now the Silicon Valley Robot Block Party) which is organized as part of the U.S. National Robotics Week. It’s an awesome, annual, free event that lets robotics geeks do their thing and gets everyone else excited about the possibilities. We had a great time seeing all the robots and demonstrations, from cheap homemade robots to Willow Garage’s PR-2 and the da Vinci Si surgical system!

Read more about the block party here: Silicon Valley Robot Block Party 2014

Somewhere in between all that robot madness, we discovered a little robot named Thymio II.

Thymio is an open hardware and open source software project. It’s a compact, sturdy, 2-wheeled robot packed with features. It has lots of sensors, including several proximity sensors (5 on the front, 2 at the back, 2 facing downward for edge detection), a 3-axis accelerometer, 5 capacitive touch buttons, a microphone, an IR receiver for remote control, and a temperature sensor! Lots of lights for visual output, 39 LEDs in total, pharmacy-no-rx.net plus a 3-bar battery level display and a speaker.

Thymio II
Thymio II

The most attractive aspect for me, a parent of a three-year-old, was the visual programming environment. It’s bright, colorful, and not overly complex so kids can focus on the programming task.

visual programming language
Aseba Studio’s Visual Programming Language

The most technical prerequisite for using this programming environment is the ability to use a mouse or trackpad and while he had not done much on the computer prior to this, he picked it up quickly. Next on the agenda was an explanation of events and actions (input/output) and an overview of the interface and how to create the program. All of this took about 10 minutes and it took another 15 minutes to get him to stop asking me if every move he made was correct. Once he saw the results of his first program, for which he made all the decisions, it was even more fun!

With so many other projects, toys, and interests, we haven’t played with Thymio as much as I would have liked, but Thymio makes an appearance occasionally.

The software is continually being upgraded and as of December 2013, the new firmware (version 7) allows Thymio robots to communicate with each other which is very cool.

Looking forward, I don’t think this platform works well for making the transition to programming in other environments. The VPL is nice in that it’s simple to use and can do some more advanced functions since it even has a state machine. You also get to see the code generated for any change to the visual interface; however, that code is a big leap from the pure graphical interface. I believe that the next step should be something like Scratch or 12 Blocks which combines the visual aspect with the code structure that then translates more easily into pure code. I’ll write more about 12 Blocks, Scratch, Tynker, and some other programming options in the coming months. The most important message I can deliver is this: never listen to anyone, including educators, if they tell you that kids should start at age X. Listen to your kid.

For now, he’s still enjoying Thymio, but this was every bit as fun for me to stand back and watch as it was for Kaiden to do!

build
Build
test
Test
celebrate
Celebrate!