Hour of Code can be a little overwhelming. Here are some of the projects I find most valuable. Most resources were pulled from https://hourofcode.com/us/learn

Pre-Readers

Pre-reader activities just don’t involve written language. Most of these are still completely fun for older kids and even adults.

CodeSpark Academy: I don’t love their pay structure it seems dishonest, and honestly my kid was done after a month, but the puzzles are great for problem solving and can be replayed to collect stars. Some amount of gameplay is free with hour of code.

Website: https://codespark.com/play/
Click “Schools” in the upper left and then “Students” then “Hour of Code.” I recommend the puzzles, but you can design games as well.

Lightbot: I love lightbot enough that I bought the full featured app awhile ago. It is challenging enough for adults and simple enough for preK kids to at least start out. The puzzles involve getting a robot to light squares, but he can jump, turn, light, and more. It works on sequencing and adds functions. The number of commands becomes restricted over time forcing the use of functions. This can limit it for younger kids, but it adds a nice challenge for older kids.

Website: https://lightbot.com/hour-of-code.html

PBS ScratchJr: PBS has some really great guided lessons for ScratchJr. This requires some more hands on work from a parent, but the lessons walk through an unplugged activity, teach some basics of how to use Scratch Jr, watch a 15 minute PBS video clip, and then have kids re-enact a scene in Scratch Jr. These are a great jumping off point for having them create more of their own stories.

Scratch Jr is a block based app that allows kids to create movies or visual stories. It is not nearly so extensive as Scratch, but the simplicity makes it a great jumping off point.

Website: https://pbskids.org/learn/scratchjr/

Block-Based Programming for Readers

Dance Party: This is the quintessential Hour of Code activity and kids tend to love it. There are a lot of videos to watch. They can be skipped, but they are also all about underrepresented people coding in unique ways, so they’re pretty worthwhile.

Website: https://code.org/dance

AI for Oceans: This activity teaches about machine learning and uses the ecological impact of trash in the oceans as a teaching tool. Kids train the bot to recognize fish and not fish and see how well it works. It is a bit slow-paced and I almost didn’t include it, but so few coding activities talk about machine learning that I thought it was important.

Website: https://code.org/oceans

Minecraft: Three of these are Minecraft based puzzle games that teach kids how to sequence. They’re very popular and well done, but they do assume some basic minecraft knowledge. The fourth is more complex and allows kids to have events trigger behavior. I really like this set.

Website: https://code.org/minecraft

You can also download minecraft education edition and run through some free activities there. I like education edition in concept and have even run some classes with it, but it is a bit buggy still and that can be frustrating.

Plethora: This one is new to me and I think I really like it. It starts off a bit slow and it is a bit clumsy to me, but I think that is because of my preconceived notions. Each level starts with a set of colored shapes and should end with a different set. Kids set collision events to create or delete shapes for the final outcome. This concept comes up in game design a lot, and I’ve never seen it taught so explicitly. I like it a lot. Kids can also design their own challenges and the platform is forever free. There is reading at the start, but I think this would be suitable for pre-readers if a reader got them started.

Website: https://www.iamplethora.com/levels.html

Art with Kano: Kano has a great drawing toolkit that lets folks programmatically create drawing by setting the background and pen colors and creating shapes and lines. The tutorials are well done and easy to follow. They progress to creating pong-like games.

Website: https://world.kano.me/challenges/kano-code/strings

Coding Without Blocks

You’ll never catch me saying that block coding isn’t real, but sometimes it is limiting based on the platform you are doing it in. Learning a fully developed language requires typing, spelling, and problem solving skills, but can lead to more freedom.

Bitsbox: Bitsbox is a subscription box I’ve heard some positive things about. In this free hour of code you create a few apps. They walk you through the exact things to type, but also encourage a lot of play with your finished project. I like this, because playing around with functional code is a great way to learn programming, and quite frankly an accepted way to be a professional programmer as well.

Website: https://bitsbox.com/hoc2016.html

Code Combat: This is gamified coding and it works pretty well. STEAM Lab had a free subscription at the beginning of covid and several kids really enjoyed it. There was a major shift of gameplay between worlds, so if your kid loves the free levels, they still may not love the paid version.

Website: https://codecombat.com/play/dungeon?hour_of_code=true and https://codecombat.com/play/game-dev-hoc?hour_of_code=true

Our own Python Tutorials: Not as flashy as some of the Hour of Code apps, but our python tutorials walk kids through the steps needed to make an interactive program in their web browser.

Python: Math Facts

Python: MadLibs

Whatever you do and whatever your style you should have fun with Hour of Code. Programming opens a door to a different way of thinking about the world and is a great tool for both art and science.

Elatsoe (Amazon / Los Alamos Public Library) is YA/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction set in an alternative United States that is a home to magic. Magic is commonplace enough not to be astounding, but also not really a huge part of life for most folk, hence it is not fully in the fantasy realm.

Elatsoe (Ellie)’s Lipan Apache family has passed down the knowledge that allows them to raise ghosts, but only animals. Raising people is bad news; they come back as angry balls of energy, unlike her faithful dog who will protect and love her all of its days. The secret is well hidden and is passed from mother to oldest daughter and must be used carefully to serve and protect their community.

The story centers around a dream in which Ellie’s cousin visits her with his last breath asking her to avenge his murder and protect his family. She must use all her knowledge, cunning and contacts to uncover the truth and avenge him without unleashing his ghost to do untold damage.

This story pits the little guy against the rich and powerful without ever implying that Ellie doesn’t have plenty of her own power. It doesn’t gloss over the historic and current atrocities enacted against indigenous people, but always there is hope and a desire to restore the earth. Ellie is followed in every store she enters while her friend Jay is adored.

This story is wonderfully diverse in the best ways. Ellie’s culture plays a large part in the story as it does in her life. Her mom uses story-telling to impart truths and we learn the life of Six Great at the story unfolds. Lipan burial rites and beliefs serve as a central theme to the story and elders are consulted.

There is also incidental diversity included causally and without fanfare. Ellie is asexual and doesn’t plan to have children. She considers breaking tradition and passing her legacy to her cousin’s son. Her best friend is a cheerleader and his sister is the star of her basketball team. Vampires are evil, but they’re also just normal people. Marriage is not just between a man and a woman. Inter-racial families must find ways to incorporate multiple cultures into their lives. Men can take a back seat to their wives careers and passions.

This book is appropriate for most anyone. It has some complex concepts, but a story that can be followed by any kiddo up for longer books. I adored it without reservation, but I could have read it out loud to my girls when they were 4 and 6, my son, currently 5, doesn’t have the attention for it though.

Crystal structures are all around us. We eat them in the form of salt and sugar and in freezing weather we see them in the forms of snow, ice, and sleet. Water is one of the simplest molecules to form crystals, making it an interesting and fun topic of study. However, don’t let the simplicity of water molecules fool you into thinking the process of snow formation is simple! Water crystals can be exceptionally complex and are the focus of extensive scientific inquiry

First, we need to consider the basis of snow; water. Water is made of two hydrogen atoms attached to a single oxygen through covalent bonds (in which atoms share electrons to create linkages and form molecules). It looks like this:

When water is in its gas or liquid state, the molecules bounce around freely, but when colder temperature causes it to solidify, the slightly positive charge of the hydrogen atoms is attracted to the slightly negative charge of the oxygen.This causes the water molecules to form interactions between each other (known as hydrogen bonds) which leads to the development of crystals that generally come together in very specific ways, the most basic of which is shown below.

The crystal on the right is a variation in which a few of the hydrogen atoms are pointing up at a 120° angle. They could as easily be pointing in different directions which allows for a diverse variety of snowflakes to be formed

When liquid water freezes, it forms neat crystals and we get ice. But when water vapor deposes, turning directly from a gas to a solid, the molecules don’t have time to form large, clean crystals and instead form snowflakes through a complex additive process. A basic start of a snowflake could look roughly like this:

The speed at which snowflakes form combined with other factors including temperature, pressure, and humidity determines the shape, size, structure, and organization of a snowflake. For example, colder temperatures generally form snowflakes that are less elaborate or organized due to the rapid speed of formation.

Drawing out all of the individual molecules in a snowflake is a long process and can obscure the larger picture. Thus, they are often simplified as hexagons or star shapes like these. All six arms of the snowflake grow independently, but under near identical conditions as they fall from the sky to the earth’s surface. This permits the formation of complex, symmetrical, and ultimately unique shapes.

Caltech has an excellent guide on classifying snowflakes and wikipedia has an entire article on snow science that talks about temperatures and classifications. Use those and this simple hexagon guide to draw your own snowflakes.

All About Blood

With Halloween having just passed, you may have noticed fake blood covering various costumes and decorations. But what exactly is this incredible red substance that courses through our bodies? 

Blood is a specialized fluid found in bodies of humans and other animals. It accounts for approximately 10% of an adult human’s weight, with the average person having roughly 10 pints of blood in their body. 

Blood has a variety of different functions, including: 

  • Oxygen and nutrient delivery to tissues of the body
  • Waste product transportation, such as moving CO2, urea, and lactic acid to organs that can process and/or eliminate them from the body
  • Prevention of infection through immunological functions
  • Clot formation (coagulation) to prevent excessive blood loss in the case of injury
  • Body heat regulation
  • Hormone transportation for chemical signalling and messaging functions 
  • pH regulation
  • Cellular water concentration maintenance
  • Osmotic pressure regulation in blood cells

What is blood made of? 

Blood is composed of four major components: plasma, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. 

Plasma: 

Plasma is the yellowish liquid portion of blood that is a mixture or water, proteins, sugars, hormones, and salt. Plasma is mostly water by volume (about 92%) and serves to transport blood cells, nutrients, antibodies, waste products, clotting proteins, and chemical messengers or hormones throughout the body while helping maintain the delicate fluid balance required for life.

Red Blood Cells: 

Red blood cells (RBCs) are also known as erythrocytes. RBCs are shaped like indented disks and have no nucleus, allowing them to be more flexible for passage through blood vessels. The lack of a nucleus also limits the lifespan of these cells, meaning that RBCs only live about 120 days on average. RBCs make up about 40-45% of total blood volume and are made daily inside our bone marrow at a rate of about 4-5 billion cells per hour. Red blood cells also contain a special protein called hemoglobin that carries oxygen and gives blood its characteristic red color. 

White Blood Cells: 

Also known as leukocytes or WBCs, white blood cells account for about 1% of total blood volume, but are a very important component of the immune system. WBCs help fight bacteria and viruses to defend the body against infection. Like red blood cells, WBCs are generated constantly in bone marrow as well as in the  spleen, thymus, and lymph nodes. WBCs flow through the bloodstream attacking foreign bodies they encounter. When fighting an infection, white blood cell production increases to generate more cells to help protect the body. The lifespan of WBCs ranges from hours to years and some types of WBCs generate antibodies (special proteins that help the body recognize foreign materials in order to get rid of them). Several of the many types of white blood cells are:

Monocytes

The largest WBC, monocytes are effective at engulfing pathogens or worn out cells in a process called phagocytosis. They are known as macrophages once they leave blood circulation and enter tissues. Monocytes influence the process of adaptive immunity, provide immune surveillance, and live for an average of 3 days.  Neutrophils: The most common type of white blood cell, accounting for 55-75% of total WBC count. Neutrophil acts as an immediate response cell and is used for immune defense through its killing and phagocytizing bacteria and mediating inflammation. The lifespan of a neutrophil ranges from minutes to days. 

Lymphocytes

T-Lymphocytes: Help regulate the function of other immune cells and directly attack infected cells and tumors in a process called cellular immunity. 

B-Lymphocytes: Are responsible for antibody production (which is important in humoral immunity) and function as memory cells that live for years. They can also recognize surface antigens of bacteria and viruses. 

Basophils

These small cells sound the alarm when infectious agents invade blood. Basophils secrete chemicals that help control the body’s immune response and promote inflammation. They have a lifespan ranging from hours to days and can enter tissues in places of injury where they secrete the anti-clotting factor heparin. Basophils are the least common WBC, accounting for only 0.5-1% of circulating white blood cells in the body. 

Eosinophils

Eosinophils have a lifespan ranging from minutes to days and work to promote inflammation. Eosinophils perform antiparasitic and bacteria killing activities. 

Platelets:

Also known as thrombocytes, platelets are tiny, colorless cell fragments found in our blood. Platelets work to control and prevent bleeding by gathering at the site of an injury where they will stick to the lining of an injured blood vessel to form a platform for blood coagulation (clotting). This coagulation leads to the formation of a fibrin clot that covers the wound and stops the flow of blood out of the injury. Fibrin also helps promote healing by forming the initial scaffolding for new tissue to form. Platelets are made in our bone marrow and have a lifespan of about 10 days before they are removed from the bloodstream. 

Blood Vessels

The heart pumps blood throughout the body through a series of blood vessels. The three main types of blood vessels are arteries, veins, and capillaries. 

  • Arteries carry nutrients and oxygenated blood from away from the heart and to the rest of the body. 
  • Veins carry deoxygenated and nutrient poor blood from various parts of the body back to the heart. 
  • Capillaries are small, thin vessels that connect arteries to veins. They have thin walls to permit oxygen, nutrients, carbon dioxide, and waste products to pass to and from the surrounding tissue cells. 

Blood Types

There are 8 different blood types determined by the presence or absence of substances that can trigger an immune response. These substances are known as antigens. In the case of blood transfusions, it is important to match compatible blood types, because some antigens can cause a patient’s immune system to attack transfused blood. The blood types are described using the letters A, B, and O to signify which antigens are present on red blood cells.The positive and negative signs indicate if the Rh protein is present in the blood or not. 

  • A- only has A Marker
  • A+ has A marker and Rh factor 
  • B- has B marker only
  • B+ has B marker and RH factor but no A marker
  • O- doesn’t have A or B markers or Rh factor
  • O+ doesn’t have A or B markers, but does have Rh factor
  • AB- has A and B markers but not Rh factor
  • AB+ has both A and B markers and Rh factor

How to Extract DNA From a Pumpkin!

Before you throw away your leftover halloween pumpkins, consider doing this at home science experiment! 

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the material within living cells that carries information about how an organism will look and function. We have a lot of DNA within our bodies, but so do all other living organisms, including pumpkins! Long strands of DNA are wound up and stored in the form of chromosomes. Most humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes for a total of 46, while pumpkins have 20 pairs, for a total of 40 chromosomes. Humans and pumpkins share about 75% common DNA! 

This experiment is relatively safe with the most dangerous components being standard dishwashing soap and rubbing alcohol. However, parental supervision is still suggested along with gloves to prevent irritation to the skin (in the case of spills) and safety glasses or goggles to avoid splashes to the eyes. 

Check out the video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/sS5oSQBCSkc

Supplies:

  • Clear glass or plastic cups 
  • Measuring cups
  • Dish soap
  • Table salt
  • Water
  • Blender or food processor
  • Rubbing alcohol (99% isopropyl alcohol preferred, chilled in the freezer)
  • Coffee filters, cheesecloth, or other straining device
  • Raw pumpkin pieces or canned pumpkin
  • Toothpicks or thin straws

Step 1: Pulverizing The Pumpkin 

To get the DNA out, the pumpkin will need to be ground up or mashed into a paste. This can be done using a blender or food processor. It helps to cut or chop the pumpkin into smaller pieces and add a small amount of water to assist the blending process. You will want to blend your pumpkin pieces until most of the chunks are pureed, but it doesn’t need to be perfect, as we will filter out any remaining solid pieces at a later time.

Step 2: Cell Lysis 

To get access to the DNA within the cells, we can use the detergent in dish soap to break open the cell membrane and nucleus. This process of breaking a cell open is called lysis. 

To prepare a lysis solution, combine ½ a cup of water with 2 teaspoons of dish soap and 1 teaspoon of table salt in a glass or cup and stir until the salt is dissolved. 

Next, in another cup, add 2-3 tablespoons of the lysis solution and 1 tablespoon of your pulverized pumpkin paste and stir. If your mixture is still pasty, add more lysis solution until you achieve a soupy consistency. 

Step 3: Filtering

At this point, your DNA should be released into the soapy pumpkin mixture. We will now need to filter out the solids by using a cheesecloth, coffee filter or other strainer. Pour your soupy pumpkin mixture from the previous step over your filter and into a clean cup. If any of the solids sneak their way in, repeat the process with a new filter and fresh cup. 

Step 4: Precipitating the DNA!

After you finish filtering, you should be left with an orangey opaque liquid with no chunks. The DNA is dissolved in this liquid and we will now use the alcohol (along with the salt we added earlier) to make the DNA precipitate and become visible to the naked eye. 99% isopropyl alcohol that has been chilled in the freezer works best for this, but you may still be able to get results with lower concentration alcohol. 

Add an equal amount of your rubbing alcohol to your orange liquid slowly with the cup tilted so layers form with the alcohol sitting on top of the liquid pumpkin extract. Over the course of a few minutes, you should see a stringy white substance form between the two distinct layers; this is your pumpkin DNA! If you don’t see anything form after a few minutes, you can try again by repeating the above steps and making sure to use the correct amounts of soap and salt. 

Step 5: Removing the DNA

At this point, you can swirl the DNA around with a toothpick or thin straw to remove it from the glass. If you want to save and display your newly extracted pumpkin DNA, you can put it in another container of rubbing alcohol. This process can be used to extract DNA from other fruits and vegetables for future experiments! 

I’ve held off on writing this review, because one aspect of this book didn’t set well with me, but I think it has far more good than not, and it was easy enough to discuss its one problem with my kids. So I decided to give it a go after waking up to another Black man shot by police. Also, it is written by a POC which puts me a little more at ease, but still not entirely.

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Los Alamos Public Library) starts at the scene of the extrajudicial police shooting of a young Black boy, Jerome. The circumstances leading up to the shooting are revealed in snippets over the course of the book both in flashbacks and trial coverage. It will sound familiar, though. A good kid who tries to always do the right thing living in a rough neighborhood under circumstances that make the shooting ‘justifiable’ and even ‘laudable’ to those who will always set Black boys on the wrong side of the law.

The book is told through the eyes of Jerome who is now a ghost watching his family mourn and his killer cover backside. His grandmother can sense him and he has the ghost of another boy to give him guidance, but his only real companion turns out to be Sarah, the daughter of his killer. She is a little girl his own age (and size) living a very different life, but struggling just the same.

The heart of the tale is about Jerome and Sarah and their shifting perspectives of each other. Already in turmoil, dealing with people who either call her father a hero or a murderer, Sarah will be forever changed by putting a face to the boy whose life her father ended. The book is masterfully written and ends on a hopeful, but far from easy, note.

My one issue, and it is big, is the use of white female tears. On a few occasions Sarah is overwhelmed with the growth that is being asked of her and escapes through tears. Her life is pretty awful in the moment, so that’s a bit reasonable. My real problem is that when Jerome gets angry with her, he is counseled by his ghost friend to be gentle with her in a way that didn’t sit well with me. It speaks too much to the feelings of white women being centered over the feelings of those who are literally being killed and I wish it would’ve been handled with a little more nuance. In my family, it served as a jumping off point for talking about this issue, but only because I’d read the book.

This book is written for middle grades. My sixth grader enjoyed the book and was able to have good dialogue about it. My fourth grader, who can be very sensitive to things, read through the book in just a few days. She was entranced. It is well done, in the sense that it doesn’t brush over the trauma and horror, but it does handle it in an age-appropriate way. I highly recommend it, with the noted reservations.

We’ve got a few things lined up for the fall and will be adding more as schedules stabilize.

Covid Camp

Our Covid Camp is currently full, but we’re keeping a wait list if you contact us. This camp is about being active, staying social, and getting work done. It is all outside, masked up, and physically distanced. We think it’ll be fun, but also safe.

We’d love to hiring a teen to help us with this camp (so we can clear our waitlist). If you know someone, send them our way. The plan is to always have everyone within sight of our adult, but we need to maintain the 1:5 ratios set by the governor.

Algebra I with a Social Justice Slant

I’ve been thinking about how to develop a social justice focused math curriculum since I first heard of them over a decade ago. The right student with the right need finally motivated me to do it now.

This Algebra I class is pre-algebra and algebra rolled into one. It is problem-based in nature and it revisits the same concepts multiple times with added complexity. We’ll meet outside for as long as we can and switch over to Google meets if we need to.

Dungeons and Dragons

We’re always looking for ways to get kiddos together socially during weird times, so when we had the opportunity to hire on a high schooler to run some D&D campaigns we jumped on it.

The first round of Dungeons and Dragon Clubs will last 5 weeks, and we have sessions for kids ranging from 2nd to high school. Beginners are welcome and they’ll have a one-on-one session to learn how to set up their characters.

Minecraft

We’re scaling back our minecraft operations for the beginning of the school year. Our creative bedrock and creative java offerings will simply be for server access and not scheduled chat, kids can arrange their own chat with buddies or use in-game chat. We’ve got Raspberry Juice installed on the Java server, so this works with all of our Python content as well.

For our Little People it is still all about the time to chat with friends, so we’re keeping that class, but reducing it to one meeting a week. Our Java Survival kids really enjoy the chat portion as well, so we’ll be keeping that meetup going as well.

Spies have infiltrated Los Alamos and seek the secrets of our town!  Fortunately, a scientist thought to lock them up for safekeeping – in a box with multiple locks, no less.  Unfortunately, she is now self-quarantining and can’t help us release them again for ScienceFest. We have the box, but only someone who knows our town well will be able to solve the clues she left for us and unlock all 6 locks before it is too late!

Grab your clues and join the hunt. Some clues are simple, but others have multiple parts that will involve exploring parts of town.  Put on your walking shoes and start searching!  Each clue will yield one lock combination that can be tested on the boxes. Solve all 6 clues to open the box for a chance to win!

Do the Corona blues have you cooped up in your house, unable to get out to track down clues?  You can still help! A set of online challenges are available as well.  Use these clues to do some online research from the safety of your own laboratory, and maybe learn something about our town and its history in the process.

Go to the ScienceFest Activities page to download your clues and instructions!

As we all know, planning for the fall is like shooting at a moving target with a pile of sticks with no fletchings. Sometimes the target even disappears completely. Even so, while it is safe, we want to help.

Our working plan for the fall semester is to offer “camp” out of FSN on Mondays/Tuesdays and Thursdays/Fridays from 9 – 1. Camp would be mostly outside to help with germ containment, but we would have access to bathrooms, a sheltered overhang, and wifi, as well as an indoor space in emergencies.

Depending on our audience and their needs, our activities would be a mix of hiking, playing with robots, and help with schoolwork. As always, we roll with how people are feeling on any given day and don’t push our goals and agenda too hard when it’s clear we aren’t going to succeed.

The goal here is not to provide full day care or a school replacement, but to ease the burden on working parents. Presumably parents can split shifts with one working a bit earlier and the other later, and kiddos can keep themselves occupied for awhile in the afternoon.

If you’d like us to email you when we have some more solid plans, or if you’d like to help us figure out how best to serve you, please fill out this very quick survey.

One of the amazing features of the Raspberry Pi when it first came out was that it came with a free version of Minecraft that had the ability to be interacted with via Python. Players could place blocks and create functions to make elaborate structures.

Minecraft was then purchased by Microsoft. While it has grown in many ways, the free raspberry pi version ceased development. Luckily and Minecraft grew, so did the ability to mod it, or create APIs that allowed for scripts and players to change the ways the Minecraft world behaved.

One of the Mods that was developed was RaspberryJuice. With this mod and the mcpi python library, players who have access to the appropriate server can use python with Minecraft in ways that weren’t possible on the Pi. We run one of these servers at STEAM Lab as part of our Python in Minecraft class, but you can also set one up on your own computer.

Sometimes one of the hardest bits of learning to program is coming up with a project that really makes you want to learn. Being able to add your own touches to Minecraft by programming a turtle to create Mt. Vesuvius, making flowers bloom wherever you walk, or designing your own parkour course can create just this motivation.

Over the next few months, I’ll work on posting some of the content I’ve created for our class for those who would like to work through it at home on their own server. In the next post I’ll provide some links that demonstrate how to set up your server and install your python libraries.

I encourage you to think about signing your kiddo up for the class though. Our world is a truly beautiful mess of colored wool towers and parkour course as kiddos try out the new material. The weekly meetups turn into a bit of a python-less free-for-all of just playing and laughing, but I have office hours for answering all of their python questions.