March 10, 2007

Engineering Open house

Once again we have had a great time at the University of Illinois's Engineering Open House. If you want your children to be engineers, take them to such an event. When I was growing up, I thought engineers were good, kind men. But engineering didn't seem the kind of profession I wanted to enter. When we go to the UofI's engineering events, the college students make all their practical application experiments seem fun and interesting. These students are enthusiastic about showing everyone, whether young or old, what they're doing. What's pleasing is the cheerfulness seems to run through the wide diversity of students, men and women.

The photo is of concrete balls that float. There's a floating concrete boat contest every year that engineering students enter. They have to figure out how to make concrete lightweight, using special light material, and then make a canoe that is fast enough to win the race. The American Society of Civil Engineers is holding the 20th annual National Concrete Canoe Competition.

Clearly engineers like to compete. We cheered on the computerized robot competition. We saw a small remote-controlled plane for another competition.

We saw computer games using the new Wii controller, which was harder to use than we thought. We built a small rocket and shot it off. We made lipgloss, cement coaster, a kind of silly putty, and glow-in-the-dark bracelets. We learned about differences in brain sizes, shape and uses from the Beckman Institute's Center for Healthy Minds. (what a great name for a place to work). There were lots of ideas for science projects. Of course, I loved the computer geeky stuff and seeing all the Macs in use.

We have all had a weird flu virus that has mostly made us lethargic and complaining. So we were thrilled to get out to the open house in warmer weather!

March 06, 2007

Where would we be without Star Wars?

For several years, our son was into pirates. This was before Pirates of the Caribbean. We played with Playmobil pirate guys and pirate ships. He had several pirate costumes, including a great one from Gymboree. Pirate books. Pirate toys from Imaginext. Pirate maps. Pirate activity books. A pirate bath mit, to keep you clean. Pirate jokes.

I learned how using one topic that appeals to your child, and hopefully you, the educational appeal is endless. We are still somewhat fascinated by pirates. The pirates of childhood are more silly than mean, altho they do have disagreements.

Currently, we are in a Star Wars phase. My husband has realized that he has to read more of the Star Wars books that our son reads just so we can keep up. Boba Fett rules. If that Lego guy gets lost, the whole house is turned upside.

We are also enjoying playing Lego Star Wars I and II on xBox. Thanks to my brother for the xBox, which has made his nephew really popular among certain friends. These two xbox games are some of the best that we have played. The second one is a vast improvement over the first, which was great. The second one has even more little puzzles, games, and character switches to make it more fun. One of the great aspects to the xBox is that it has a hard drive, so we can bring in characters from the first game into the second. It's cool to watch Darth Vadar battle his younger self.

Check out Gamer Dad, in the Media list on the side, for reviews of games with a sense of what's appropriate for family members.

March 05, 2007

Praise and where it takes you

I have been mulling over the ideas in a recent cover article in New York magazine, by Po Bronson, titled "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise." This is a rather long article, but the gist of it is that children seem to respond a lot better to praise that is specific. They want to know exactly not what they have done correct, not that they are good kids. Because, the research thinking goes, if they think they're good and smart then 1) they can't figure out the exact effort that got them to that point and 2) if they're so good why should they try harder. Sincerity of praise is also important.

Bronson admits at the end that he's a praise junkie and that it's harder for him to stop abstractly praising than he thought it would be. He writes, "I’d thought “praise junkie” was just an expression—but suddenly, it seemed as if I could be setting up my son’s brain for an actual chemical need for constant reward." Earlier in the article he writes, "After reading Carol Dweck’s research, I began to alter how I praised him, but not completely. I suppose my hesitation was that the mind-set Dweck wants students to have—a firm belief that the way to bounce back from failure is to work harder—sounds awfully clich├ęd: Try, try again.But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort—instead of simply giving up—is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification."

Researchers learned that kids who were taught that the brain is a muscle and that the more you worked it, like any muscle, the better it performed, performed better in school and in homework than those who were not taught how the brain worked. They could understand the logic of the idea of keeping trying to get their brain at its peak performance levels. They could see a reason for homework and did it better.

Self-esteem by itself is not as great as it's been proposed. Failure leads to the abililty to figure out how to not fail and then how to succeed. A recent study shows that college students are quite narcissistic. There has been some commentary and some research about the current group of people who are in their twenties who even admit to being coddled too much. We'll see. One thing is for sure...parenting makes you realize that you can make mistakes, but you have to keep trying.

Thankfully, we have the humor of British writers to have developed the genre of Bad Mothers Club literature. Unlike Americans who take things far too seriously, the British are usually able to swallow their pride and publish self-deprecating, but funny, realizations in slightly smart books. Check out the Bad Mothers Club (incorporate Bad Dads) website.

March 04, 2007

iPod accessories

I've owned an iPod for more than a year and am still figuring out which accessories I need, like, or simply desire. We love our iDog because it's cute and trendy. But the speakers are not very loud. I have a lot of trouble using a tiny Phillips screwdriver to open up the battery section, which I seem to need to do more often than I like. We ooh and awww over the latest variations: iCat, iFish, etc. But if you get it, don't be suprised that it's not as functional as you hoped. Also, the dog keeps barking on its own even though it's not cute five minutes later. I want it to stop barking sooner than it does. Very annoying to hear the electronic dog barking in the kitchen while we're eating. Still, the design is spiffy.

Recently, I bought an iLive speaker set from Kohl's. Okay, it's somewhat embarrassing to buy electronics from Kohl's, but I had noticed it was on sale before Christmas and then never saw that price again until before Valentine's Day, when I bought it. The speakers are small, but pack a lot of punch. They don't sound distorted and have a nice range. I can also hook up my tiny radio for AM/FM listening. (I could hook up the speakers and iPod to the TV, but haven't.) The iLive also recharges the iPod. I bought it for kitchen listening and have found it serves that purpose quite well. I'm glad that I didn't miss the sale. And now I can listen to my podcasts, including Creative Mom Podcast, while cooking and cleaning and dancing around.

I continue to be mystified by all the accessories for the iPod, as some make a lot of sense and some don't. The iPod seems so much designed to be listened to individually that listening to it without headphones seems to be an afterthought.

I have found a lot of help and reviews for iPod paraphenalia at, but it's almost too detailed.