Young teen with a medal around her neck for her science fair project on antibacterial agents

How to Raise a Steminist

If we define feminism as the belief that all genders should have equal rights and opportunities, STEMinists believe that all genders should have equal opportunities in STEM fields. Sounds like a no-brainer, something with which we can all agree. There are no official barriers to girls in STEM fields or classes, and yet we are far outnumbered.

We’ve seen it in our own schools, in the number of girls in computer science, engineering and robotics classes. There are only a few. We’ve also seen it in how many girls are twice accelerated in math–they’re outnumbered by boys about 4 to 1. Why? What messaging are our girls getting that tells them these subjects aren’t for them? Or that these subjects are less interesting or perhaps, ugh, hard? Why are they self selecting out?

When people of diverse backgrounds collaborate, what they create is more inclusive, richer and often more appealing. We need women not only at the boardroom table, but on the design floor, creating tomorrow’s technology, and finding solutions to issues that touch us.

So, how do we foster a love of science in general? 

Encourage curiosity. When children are young, we marvel with them at the beauty of a spider web. We take them to nature centers and take pleasure at their delight. As they grow, we need to continue to encourage their natural curiosity and to expand their vision. I’ve always found the best way to do that is with people who are passionate about their subject. Here in Northern Westchester there are opportunities to marvel at the night sky with the Westchester Amateur Astronomers. The Westchester Land Trust and Lewisboro Land Trust organize hikes and other events to explore the best asset around: our nature preserves. And the Bedford Audubon Society invites people to participate in its bird count and other research programs.

Make it fun. Learning needn’t feel like school. We learn best while enjoying ourselves, so be playful. When we think of learning as play, we’re also free to try out new ideas, even if we’re not sure they’ll work. That’s an important element needed in the sciences, and also in life. We can call it grit, perseverance, iteration.

Whether it’s mixing up a batch of conductive dough, or helping a child design a science fair project, we try to keep it light, observing what works and asking questions about why sometimes the marble cannon only sputtered and then trying a different strategy. Sometimes, for example for a science fair project, we need to take careful notes, but for a weekend soldering project we just talk as we go.

Name their accomplishments. It’s too easy to discount our accomplishments today. So call them out. “You just soldered that like a pro!” goes a long way. The flip side of this is to rephrase what they might consider failures. It’s only a failure if that is where you stop. I like to say something like “that’s really interesting. You found that we can eliminate that path and now we can move on. What do you think you can change to make it …?” Finding out what doesn’t work is a very valuable thing itself.

Give them real tools. If you give a young child access to your kitchen, let her peel her own carrot and help mix a batch of cookies, she will gain so much more confidence and pride than if you give her pretend kitchen/food toys. My favorite nursery school has tree stumps covered in nails the children have hammered. The same holds true as kids get older. If you buy a drone, try one you can code, like the Tello, or build your own Tiny Whoop. Notice the difference between items that are simply toys and ones that feel like toys but help the child to learn some new concepts or skills. And if you find yourself working on a project using power tools, or even just building some IKEA furniture, give them a power screwdriver and show them how to use it.

At MKR LAB we search out real components that our students can use. We love open source software and our students are learning computer languages and components that are widely used professionally. Some cute kits have made their way into our kids’ hands and often they simplify the science or tech too much. The robot that drive like an RC car sits on a shelf. The circuits kit that snaps together was used once or twice. But the little flashlight my daughter soldered herself is used nightly for bedtime reading after lights-out.

Insist. Sometimes a child pushes back, says she isn’t interested in programming, doesn’t want to take that accelerated math class. It’s important to hear them and try to address their concerns. When our own burgeoning steminist said she really didn’t want to take AP Computer Science as a high school freshman, we assured her that she had all the prerequisites, and that it really didn’t matter that it wasn’t typically done, that she was capable and that we could help her if she ever needed. She still pushed back. Our answer: computer programming is a matter of basic literacy today and she needed to take it. Period. In the end we pulled a “because I said so.” She did well and her experience added to her growing sense of confidence in her abilities. One of our jobs as parents is to show our kids all that is open to them so that when they choose their path they are making an informed choice. I like to set high, but attainable expectations, which will vary from child to child.

Put the “A” in STEAM. Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math. Art is where the magic happens, and once it is integrated into a project, kids are hooked. Art incorporates the personal vision. It’s what your robot looks like. It’s the texture or form of your eTextile project. It’s how you animate your program or game. In our robotics classes the art component might also be how we interact with our robots, how we integrate components to be appealing. We can build function, but when we also develop and refine form our projects become more engaging and compelling. Looking at STEAM from another perspective, we can use STEM to elevate our art. I’m working on electroforming to create jewelry right now, using tech to create art.

Be a role model. Let your girls see you try new things. Let them see you make mistakes and your imperfections. Generally speaking, girls can be somewhat risk averse. Personally, I like to know I will succeed before I do something. I’m working on taking chances and letting my own kids see the process. Lately I’ve been trying to make conductive ink for an interactive mural I want to paint, and my first three attempts were unsuccessful, but I’m persevering. It can be done! I also want my girls to see women doing amazing things so I try to highlight inspiring women, whether they are figures in the news or women in our lives. I sing their praises.

Help others. I had a really interesting conversation with an engineering teacher at World MakerFaire last Fall. He brought a group of students, largely girls, to demonstrate a community service program building solar lights for partner schools in Africa. He said that his robotics classes were an instant hit with the guys, but that many of the girls weren’t interested until he found a project that helped others. They had to engineer their lights for the specific places and ways they were to be used, and then they fabricated the lights and sent them to their partner schools. My takeaway is that perhaps we need to connect the dots for girls: engineering classes can teach crucial skills needed to find new energy systems and other innovations to tackle climate change. Robotics can improve our medical techniques, help us create better consumer products and improve lives. Study of agricultural tech can help us feed the world. I think this is a good thing to talk about with ALL kids, not just girls.

All girls classes or groups? I’m a little torn on this. Do girls participate more actively in gender-specific groups? Perhaps, but I don’t think I will offer a program that leaves out the guys. I have a son too and he also needs opportunities to explore his interests, as do many of our male students. These kids are voracious learners and I can’t imagine leaving them out. So instead I try to engage all our students, making sure to check in with the quietest ones. And I’m finding that the girls who walk in our doors are persistent and tenacious. They’re also super sharp and funny too. I delight in their successes.

Thanks so much for reading this. Now I’m off to build paper automatons with my 9-year old daughter, because I don’t ever want her to tell me an engineering class is too hard (and they’re lots of fun!)


Boston terriers in red ear-flap hats with white beards

2018 Holiday Gift Guide: Teens

Teens can be hard to find gifts for. We have two at home–we know! Never fear. We have some great ideas for you, plus a couple gifts from my own list for the kid at heart. As with our 2018 Holiday Guide for Ages 5 – 11, I look for gifts that help kids attain new skills or expand their minds in some way. But first and foremost, these gifts are fun! Enjoy!

OK. It might not be glamorous, but we highly endorse teaching kids how to use basic tools BEFORE they fly the coop. So why not equip them with a real set of their own, like this one from Stanley? There’s something truly empowering about having your own tools and not having to ask to borrow someone else’s. And all makers need good tools. Bonus: your teen will be well equipped to help with small repairs around the house. (I have a set just like this and it’s super handy.)

Suddenly anything can become a circuit with Bare Conductive’s Electric Paint. No need to solder wires and it sticks where copper tape won’t. I found this product in a kit I bought at MoMA several years ago and was thrilled when it worked! It’s water-based and I’ve seen it used on the skin too. The active ingredient is carbon, so no harsh chemicals to worry about. If you’re thinking about being a cyborg next Halloween, this is the product for you! Also great for paper circuits projects.

Make: Paper Inventions is a great source for inspiration and instructions for paper-based projects. And it’s a wonderful blend of art and science. We love that the projects in here are all low-cost using widely available components and they provide fun opportunities to hone skills and competency in circuitry, even math (check out the geodesic dome project.) Add some copper tape, LEDs, tilt switches, and some nice cardstock paper.

Karakuri: How to Make Mechanical Paper Models That Move is a beautiful book that blends art with mechanics. It takes you through creating your own gears, cams and other mechanism to make paper constructions move. Automata are pretty awesome and author Keisuke Saka has shown his work in several museums. I think I might have to get this for myself too! The precision required for these projects might be too much for younger kids, but teens who like to tinker should be up to the task.

Some kids are thirsty to know how things work. If that sounds like your child, Thames & Kosmos is one of the best creators of educational kits. This Physics Pro kit includes all the components and instructions for models and devices including a wind tunnel, pneumatic shocks and a hydraulic lift. Continue to explore fluid dynamics, energy, and oscillation.

I think I need these silicone molds for making pendants myself. Fill them with epoxy resin and embed small objects, glitter, color, or, ahem, LEDs! This kit comes with small screw eyes to turn your creations into pendants. Putting the Art in STEAM! (Make sure to work in a well-ventilated area.)

Looking for a robot that’s more than just a toy? Us too. The MakeBlock mBot is an easy build and can be coded with block code on your Android or iOS device. It has an ultrasonic sensor and can do obstacle avoidance and line following. But perhaps the best part of mBot is that you can reconfigure it, add your own LEGOs or other components to design your own robot. The Interactive Light & Sound Add-On Pack gives you even more options. If you’re more interested in coding than building and want to code in Python, choose Codey Rocky, also from Makeblock. The ages 6+ recommendation earned it a place on our younger list, but teens (or possibly adults) can use it to hone their Python skills.

The OSOYOO Arduino-based self balancing robot is open source and easy to assemble. Control it with an Android device. In this build you’ll incorporate a Bluetooth module, inertial measurement unit (measures balance parameters) and a motor driver. We think it’s pretty cool.

The Circuit Playground Express is my new favorite microcontroller. It has so many components already on it (read on). But mostly I love how easy it is to get up and running with it. Code it with MakeCode block code (very similar to Scratch) and connect whatever you want with alligator clips for immediate gratification. Here’s what you get with the Circuit Playground Express (excuse me, it’s a lot!):

10 x mini NeoPixels, each one can display any color (LEDs)
1 x Motion sensor (LIS3DH triple-axis accelerometer with tap detection, free-fall detection)
1 x Temperature sensor (thermistor)
1 x Light sensor (phototransistor). Can also act as a color sensor and pulse sensor.
1 x Sound sensor (MEMS microphone)
1 x Mini speaker with class D amplifier (7.5mm magnetic speaker/buzzer)
2 x Push buttons, labeled A and B
1 x Slide switch
Infrared receiver and transmitter – can receive and transmit any remote control codes, as well as send messages between Circuit Playground Expresses. Can also act as a proximity sensor.
8 x alligator-clip friendly input/output pins
Includes I2C, UART, 8 pins that can do analog inputs, multiple PWM output
7 pads can act as capacitive touch inputs and the 1 remaining is a true analog output
Green “ON” LED so you know its powered
Red “#13” LED for basic blinking
Reset button
ATSAMD21 ARM Cortex M0 Processor, running at 3.3V and 48MHz
2 MB of SPI Flash storage, used primarily with CircuitPython to store code and libraries.
MicroUSB port for programming and debugging
USB port can act like serial port, keyboard, mouse, joystick or MIDI!

If all that is overwhelming, you can always drop in for Open Lab at MKR LAB and we’ll help get you started, show you some cool things you can do, like connect fruit up to the capacitive touch sensors and turn your produce into a musical instrument, or embed it in a glove and create a game controller that reacts to your hand position. So many possibilities!

I love drones. And DJI is one of the best drone makers, though usually at a much higher price point. So the Tello is pretty amazing at about $100. What’s even better is that it has a decent camera (ok, it’s only 720P but I’ll take it at this price) and you can code it in Scratch if you want! It’s also light enough that you don’t have to register it with the FAA. This all means the Tello is so much more than a toy. Try your hand at video editing or code some cool tricks. Note that you will want the controller. While you can pair the drone with your phone, the connection is much more stable with the controller.

This one is a big ticket item, so it can be a family gift. The HTC Vive Virtual Reality System is the top choice from all the kids I queried for this list. It’s also what we use at MKR LAB. We’ve tested this rig plenty and it’s a crowd pleaser. Our youngest child, 9, loves to “paint” with it. I “play” a meditative game on it. And of course there are your typical high-thrill games and sports. A year in, we still are just scratching the surface of all we can do with the Vive. This is the model to get. It outperforms the Oculus and, while there’s a new Pro model available, it only increases performance slightly at a big price differential.

My 15-year old really wants magnetic nail polish this year. It’s regular nail polish with tiny magnetic particles in it. Paint a nail, then hold a magnet over it while wet and the particles will be attracted toward the magnet and create a design. The lid on each of the 8 bottles in this Sally Hansen Magnetic Nail Polish set has magnets in a wave pattern. I quizzed my girl all about magnetism to see if she knew the basic science behind this beauty trend. She did. And she also has been learning a lot about microcontrollers. I think she’ll get this wish.

2 Boston Terriers in silly hats with ear flaps

2018 Holiday Gift Guide: Ages 5 – 11

2018 Maker Gift Guide: Ages 5 - 11

I’ve long believed the things we give our kids matter. Some gifts are simple pleasures, but a truly great child’s gift will expand their mind in some way, let them explore new ideas and it will be so much fun that the recipient won’t ever consider it an educational toy. A truly great gift also allows for creativity. Here are a few of my top picks for grades K – 5 this year.

There was one year when my daughter gave a version of this to every birthday child she knew. Squishy Circuits are a fabulous way for kids as young as 5 to explore circuits. The dough is very familiar to them, and the idea of powering lights, a buzzer or even a motor via dough and a few wires is pretty amazing. One thing I like about this kit in particular is that it includes both the conductive dough and the insulating dough. It’s totally open ended and kids of all ages will engage with it. Yes, even teens will play with this if you put it in front of them. And it helps build fine motor skills too.

Geoboards are great for building fine motor skills and geometric and mathematical thinking. I’m seeing kids come into our classes who have never before played with rubber bands. These simple boards are mesmerizing, and open-ended. Try making patterns, find symmetry, or make a picture.

I want to be 10 again and to spend time exploring all the projects in Rubber Band Engineer. Did you notice this isn’t a gendered gift list? Give this book to a girl (or a boy, or someone who doesn’t identify in a binary way). Seriously. I wish I had fewer barbies and more engineering type toys as a kid. Leaf through this before gifting and assemble some materials, in addition to a big bag of rubber bands. How about adding some paper clips and pliers too?

Back in the day, LEGO made amazing kits, like the Auto Chassis Expert Builder set (you’ll have to search eBay for it). I’ve been a bit disappointed with the company’s descent into violent character-driven product lines. But you can get a taste of some really great mechanical designs with Klutz’s LEGO Chain Reactions set. Do the projects here and learn about gears, levers, ramps and other simple machines, energy … the basics of physics. Just don’t mix up these specialized pieces in your big bin of LEGOs. Oh yeah, while this set is on our grades K-5 list, tweens and teens can get a lot out of it too. If they think they’re too old, ask them to “help” a younger child.

We have a set of these blocks up in the attic. As if by magic, they spill out of the box and assemble themselves into towers of varying designs. I thought my kids were done with these, but apparently not.  This Keva set includes 400 blocks, a booklet with contraptions you can make, and two nicely weighted balls. I love tech, but simple open-ended toys like this help kids build an innate understanding of physics, design and proportion.

Circuits are the basic elements in every computer and device we use. It’s worthwhile–and fun–to explore them and Chibitronics makes it easy. Don’t worry if you forgot the difference between wiring in series or parallel. This kit has clear instructions and room for your child to be creative and illustrate their creations. If they like this, buy them a box of LEDs, some 2032 batteries and more copper tape and let them go wild.

Does your kid like the box better than the gift? Just go with it and give them this makedo toolkit with reusable connectors they can use to create their own cardboard creations. Art, architecture, whatever they can imagine. This would be even better when combined with the Chibitronics above so kids can light up their projects.

Wearable electronics are super exciting right now. This LilyPad Sewable Electronics Kit has everything you need to get started with eTextiles. This kit explores circuits with conductive thread and includes sewable battery holders and LEDs, switches and buttons. It also includes a pre-programmed LilyMini circuit that reacts to ambient light levels.

Already explored paper circuits and ready to learn to solder? Try this Simon Says Soldering Kit from SparkFun. You need your own soldering iron, solder and wire cutters. Everything else is in the kit. This could be a lot of fun for a tween or teen. But younger kids can do it too if working closely with an adult. I loved Simon as a kid. What’s old is new again.

Looking for a robot? Of course you are. But which one? There are so many. We LOVE Codey Rocky from MakeBlock. It’s wifi enabled, is replete with 10 programmable electronic sensors and you can code it in both block code and (this is why we love it so) Python! Yes. It looks like a cute little robot and even says it’s for kids 6+. But add in Python programmability and this cutie pie could make it onto our teen list too. We’ll leave it here. But please, if you buy this for your child, let them play with it too!

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Glowing Pompom Crown Workshop

LED PomPom Crowns

LEDs, Wearables, Circuits & Fun

No power, no problem! The lights may be out, but this crew is glowing with LED headgear they made.

After tornados passed through Westchester and left most of our town without power, but the kids were good to proceed so we quickly secured a couple more battery-powered hot glue guns and had a great time with this crew.


Kids made circuits with LEDs, a battery holder and copper wire

While this isn’t the best photo, it gives you a sense of the basic elements of this project, before it was festooned with colorful pompoms. We would have preferred to use low-heat hot glue guns, but we had a power outage to contend with, so we used battery powered glue guns and they can get hot and burn little fingers. So an adult held the headband carefully and the student did the gluing. Our goal is to have the student participate fully from start to finish.

Step 1 was to glue the LEDs in place with all the anodes facing the same direction so they could be wired in parallel easily. We used a combination of blue, green, white and blinking LEDs, but learned that red and yellow LEDs are lower voltage and will make the other colors not function, so we didn’t use those.

If you look closely, you’ll see a black battery holder on the lower left end of the headband. That’s our power source. Two copper wires are soldered onto the battery holder. Students then wrapped the copper wire around the legs of the LEDs and once we confirmed that each circuit was wired properly (they all got it the first time – yay!) we encased the connections in hot glue. That’s what’s happening above.

Students combined big and small pompoms to decorate their crowns

Once the students made their circuits, it was time to get creative with pompoms! The best part was seeing how each student approached their project differently. Some were methodical, curating a limited color palate and placing each pompom precisely. Others went for a rambunctious riot of color! They all were perfect! And they learned a lot about circuits.

LED wearables

MKR LAB in the News!

The Lewisboro Hamlet Hub wrote about MKR LAB. It’s so exciting that people are finding us here in Northern Westchester.

“MKR LAB Inc. announced several workshops for May and June to introduce students in grades K-12 to electricity and circuits, soldering and more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) fields. The new business hopes to build a maker space once it completes the zoning process and can occupy its own space in Lewisboro. In the meantime, MKR LAB is offering classes at the new DayDreamer Studio in the Yellow Monkey Village in Cross River.”

Read the full article here.

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