Recent Posts

Going Solar: Installing Solar Panels

Full Set of Panels

Have you been thinking about taking advantage of tax credits to install solar panels this year? If so, check out the thread Going solar to join the discussion of how to size for growth, bulk buys with other people, tax credits, and buy vs. lease programs.

Tax Incentives and Bulk Buys:

We have good local tax incentives plus the ability to save on installation via a bulk co-op purchase such that the economics look WAY better than I expected (breakeven estimated in 5-6 years). Anyone want to share your experiences with solar – pros, cons, pitfalls, surprises, benefits?

Planning for Growth:

When considering the number of panels to install, we thought a lot about growth.  We’re incredibly frugal with electricity now, but don’t have to be so stingy with lights and such once we’re using solar. Also, our kids will use more as they got older and we’ll probably replace our aging cars with plug-in hybrids eventually, so we’re getting more panels than we required to meet our current needs.  I think we added three panels above the installers recommendation for meeting current usage.

Excess Electricity:

I know a few people with panels who generate more than they use — and then sell the excess to the power companies. So they get a monthly check. Now *that* sounds awesome.

We have a system which puts any surplus electricity being generated but not used into heating our hot water, so I hope to see our electricity and our natural gas bills both come down.  One recommendation I would make is to get a monitoring system, ours feeds to a secure web page, which means I can see figures on what we are generating, what we are using, what we are importing and/or exporting from anywhere with an internet connection.  This has made all the difference to how we use electricity, including setting timers on the dishwasher and washing machine to use ‘free’ power, and also being aware of which appliances are energy hogs

Need a New Roof?

…we just got some of our initial paperwork and it indicates that if you replace your roof as part of the solar installation process (not sure how intertwined these need to be – if you have to use the same contractor or what), the roof replacement costs are also eligible for the 30% federal tax credit.

Do you have advice or questions about going solar? Add it in the comments below, or join the conversation on the forum: Going solar.

Image credit: Full Set of Panels by joncallas, CC attribution license

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Teaching Your Kids to Code

This week is Computer Science Education Week. At our house, it was also the week of Strep throat and two snow days (with very little snow). Which means that after my kids had spent hours turning their blocks and rubber balls into Rube Goldberg machines, put on five puppet shows, and made endless “potions” out of baking soda, vinegar, food coloring, and Orbeez, they begged me to help them build a computer game. Specifically, a “game with pulleys, just like a Rube Goldberg machine, Mom!”

ZOOM . games . Goldburger To Go | PBS KidsThe first thing we did was look for a Rube Goldberg game to play, as research. There are lots of Rube Goldberg games online, some sketchier than others. (There were a few times I hurriedly closed down the browser as multiple windows started popping up.) We finally found one that was about the right level of play for my eight year old, the PBS Kids Goldburger To Go. Just like a real Goldberg machine, it was equal parts fascinated discovery, and frustration. It took a more than a few minutes, but she worked through the whole thing, and then happily showed her 5 year old sister how to play.

Protip: Starting with a PBS Kids game as your coding level target? May be setting expectations a little high. But they did have lots of fun with it.

Want more ideas for getting your kids interested in STEM? Check out the thread Wishlist: STEM Toys, or create a free log-in to join the discussion of Simple and engaging STEM activities that come in all colours and Encouraging STEM In Our Daughters (in our non-public parenting boards).

We’d played around with Scratch and Hopscotch before, but the kids found them a little frustrating– too hard to use trial and error to map their complex visions of world-conquering computer games into reality. While there are primitive pulley games on Scratch, when you peek at the code, they look well above the 8 year old one-hour effort.

So I was pleased to discover the Edutopia review of 7 Apps for Teaching Children Coding Skills. This is a great round-up of kid-friendly programming options, from the very young on up to teens.

My oldest jumped right into GameStar Mechanic, happily playing and building maze video games for at least an hour, while I sat with her sister to take a look at Move the Turtle on the iPad. Move the Turtle was just about right for a first grader, and worked well for my kindergartener-with-mom-at-elbow to read the instructions and help interpret them. But soon enough, maze video games got boring, and I was glad we’d tried out GameStar Mechanic out before paying for the full version.

TynkerWe moved on to Tynker. (OK, I admit, I moved on to Tynker when they were finally back in school yesterday.) My first impression of Tynker: the interface looks just like Scratch. But wait! Instead of learning by copying and editing existing games, jumping right into the editing window, Tynker has simple learn-to-program games. Start by teaching a puppy to run 10 steps, then 40, then learn how to loop by jumping over a series of traffic cones. Tynker is similar to Move the Turtle in how it has simple puzzles with instructional “hints,” but the interface is story-based, animated, and more engaging in general.  This one looks like a winner, and I’ll definitely run the kids through all of the many Hour of Code game tutorials. If they like it as much as I think they will, they might get the $50 course under the tree this year. They might be able to go through the Hour of Code tutorials and learn enough to jump back into Scratch, because they use the same drag-and-drop block interface.

Cargo-BotThe final option might just meet their approval for building a “pulley game.” Cargo-Bot is a free iPad game that allows kids to program a crane to lift, lower, and move blocks from one spot to another. This is about the right level of effort to start my kids off at: program an existing structure to move up, down, and sideways. The Scratch pulleys, with their individual moving sprites, might be a step farther down the road, but I think Cargo-Bot will be just right for our next snow day.

Image credits: Blue Glow by Jim Sneddon, Goldburger To Go via PBS Kids, Cargo-Bot via Two Lives Left

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Music Lessons for Kids

Child on the piano

We recently got a piano, and my daughter, age 3, is completely enchanted by it. I do play piano, though it has been many years. She is too young for us to want to pursue formal lessons, but I am wondering if anyone here has taught their child some piano basics and wants to share some ideas. She has a good mastery of letter and numeral recognition. Any recommendations for basic lesson books for the youngest of beginners?

Is your child interested in learning to play an instrument? Check out the thread Introducing your child to the piano (or other musical instruction)

We’ve got a new thread this week on how to introduce your child to music lessons. If he or she is showing interest in your piano (or flute, or drums, or kazoo), what do you do? How do you know if she’s too young to learn without being frustrated? What are the best resources to help her learn? You have questions, we have answers:

Piano teacher weighing in here. I actually don’t care for Burnam, John Thompson or most of the older piano lesson books for young beginners. The pacing is odd and some of them rely too heavily on finger numbers. I’m a total convert to the Piano Adventures series. They actually have a wonderful series for very young beginners, though I would say 3 is too little even for those. The site is great and offers a lot of info to help teachers and parents teach the concepts in the books.

My (almost) three year old loves to have “lessons” and what we do is, we talk about black keys and white keys, and practice playing together on the white keys or on the black keys. (I just play a simple chord pattern in either C or C# to duet with her.) We also practice playing loudly and softly, long notes and short notes (staccato). I talk with her about finding patterns on the piano of 2 black keys together and 3 black keys, and then she finds all the groups of two and plays them. We also talk about finger numbers and practice playing a note of her choice with each finger. All these exercises are in the first several pages of the books I linked above – but that’s about as far as she’s able to do at 35mo.

Most kids I don’t recommend begin piano lessons until they have the reading readiness to understand the idea of reading symbols across a page from left to right, the attention span to sit and do an activity for 20 minutes, and the fine motor skills to play notes with one finger at a time. And an interest in learning piano of course!

Drop by the thread Introducing your child to the piano (or other musical instruction) to ask your own questions about music education, or to chime in with other resources or advice.

Image credit: Petits doigts au piano by stephane4500

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Simple and engaging STEM activities that come in all colours

Ivory soap experiment | Popcorn Soap in the microwave!We’ve got mixed feelings about GoldieBlox, but we love how it’s making everyone think about how science play can be fun. If you’re looking for ideas on how to engage kids in exploring the world around them, check out some of these ideas from the thread Simple and engaging STEM activities that come in all colours.

Looking for ideas for STEM toys for holiday wishlists? Check out the thread: Wishlist: STEM Toys, or hop directly over to Amazon to read our Listmania list STEM Toys for Girls and Boys.

Simple STEM Activities

  1. Find a stream, and have a leaf race
  2. Catch fireflies
  3. Making paper air planes
  4. Yeast+water in soda bottle with balloon on top (balloon blows up)
  5. Soap in the microwave (check out the difference between Ivory soap and other brands)
  6. Growing salt crystals
  7. Put unopened/tight mushroom on paper until it opens up and release spores
  8. Make a pH indicator: cook red cabbage, add baking soda to some of the juice, vinegar to another jar
  9. Build a marble run out of toilet paper tubes
  10. Sprinkle salt on ice cubes, add food coloring
  11. Experiment with different soap bubble recipes
  12. Soak an egg in vinegar

Looking for more ideas? Got your own ideas to share? Check out the thread Simple and engaging STEM activities that come in all colours.

Image credit: Ivory soap experiment | Popcorn Soap in the microwave! by GoodNCrazy

Affiliate notice: all links are affiliate links, and help keep our servers running! Read the rest of our disclosure notice to learn about our other affiliate relationships.

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GoldieBlox: Up With Girls (sort of)

We’ve had some discussion of GoldieBlox on the forum recently, but that conversation moved on and I’m finding myself still obsessed with the topic. On the one hand, I think the idea behind the ad is awesome! I had been having a hard time figuring out how GoldieBlox would be a toy that would be engaging over a long period of time of creative play, and the ad certainly directly addresses that point. And I love that my daughter has spent more than 6 hours over the last few days building her own Rube Goldberg machine.

But I am also interested in the views from this blog post on Fake and Real Student Voice

I like much about this video. I like the message. I like the way it’s shot. I like the girls. What I don’t like is the perception that this is the girl’s invention. It’s not. These girls are likely no more into inventing and making than most girls their age. While I might be able to look past that, and I can, I don’t like the perception that this is authentic as it suggests. Which raises the larger question of authentic student voice.

Somehow it seems even more disingenuous when I realize that the engineering team for the GoldieBlox ad is primarily male. If you watch the Making Of videos on YouTube, that’s the single thing that jumps out at me most. That, and watching the kids be coached on how to jump up and down in girly excitement.

For a palate-cleanser: a group of middle school girls build their own damn Rube Goldberg machine themselves.

I am not planning to buy GoldieBlox for my kids– mostly because every time I look at the toy itself, it seems very expensive for a very few pieces of plastic machinery without a huge amount of creative play options. If I did buy it, it would not be for the toy itself, but more like a charity donation to encourage women in STEM, and there are probably better ways for me to do that. But my kids have, love, and play with regularly:
Wooden blocks
Toolbox and wood scraps
Ropes, elastic (good for engineering and sewing), yarn, ribbon,
Science/nature kits with binoculars, magnifying glasses, notebooks, butterfly nets and cages, and a handful of field guides

They also have Snap Circuits and a toy chemistry set, neither of which were as popular as I’d hoped, mostly because they seem to like open-ended toys like blocks more than kits like Snap Circuits or GoldieBlox.

A while back, I put together a holiday wishlist including things like pulleys and tire swing swivels (the swing mechanics are part of their Rube Goldberg). I’m going to go back through it this year, and see what other “simple machines” accessories I can add to their collection. And I will be thankful (though apparently also grumpy) that the GoldieBlox ad has renewed their interest in simple machines.

Anybody else have strong feelings about GoldieBlox, encouraging STEM in our girls, the intersection of ideals vs. real world (WTF, seriously, if you are making a viral ad AND releasing a “making of” that will certainly also be shown to little girls, you can’t find a 50-50 gender balance in your engineering team?), or even parody vs. unlicensed music pirating for their theme song? Join me on the topic Goldie Blox, feminism, STEM, and an all-male engineering team.

Affiliate notice: all links are affiliate links, and help keep our servers running! Read the rest of our disclosure notice to learn about our other affiliate relationships.

More about the video: Grape Girls Rube Goldberg Project, May 2013, PVJH

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