Friday, June 27, 2014

Free geeky summer reading for kids - light in style, solid content

School is finally out, and that means summer vacation and more downtime. There will be car travel and air plane rides or hanging out in the backyard until the friends come over. It would be a good habit to use those "I am bored" moments and fill them with some quick, light summer reading. And with light I mean in weight, not in content.

Evel and Mr Entropy have been reading "Ask" since last fall, a great magazine covering scientific topics for children age 6-9. Each issue follows a theme, "Stuck on you" in the latest. Good photography and cartoons explored the world of microbes, lichens and fungi. The articles are just the right length to keep a child's curiosity alive while imparting a good deal of scientific knowledge. And the best thing - for this summer "Ask" and all its siblings from publisher Cricket (10 different magazines) are free for download on iTunes or Google Play. Download them all and you hopefully won't run out of reading material.

Comics and infographics help illustrate scientific content

If what's keeping your kids from reading more in summer is the worry that they will misplace the library books at the vacation destination, or that water, sand and sun screen will damage the books or your tablet, offers a great solution. Over 1,000 leveled reading books for elementary school children (grades K-5) are available as pdf downloads which you print at home. You won't have to worry about pizza sauce or ripped pages, and the books can double-function as coloring books. About half of the books are non-fiction covering science, technology or history, adjusted to the exact reading ability of your child. And with the free trial offered right now you can download 20 books per day for 14 days. 280 books - that should cover your summer and the individual interests of all your children!

Happy Reading!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Donate yourself to Research - Scientific Method Part 4 - Data Collection

First published on

"People’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy".

Playing board games can raise a child's IQ.

At age 2, girls start to prefer the color pink, while boys start to avoid it.

Have you ever wondered where those gems of insight into human learning and behavior come from? Well, or course, from scientific research, but where are these studies conducted and who are these children who's color preference had been tested, or who got to play board games? For a multi-year CDC study looking for risk factors for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities the answer is - my child and me. We donated ourselves to research.

When thinking about being a research test subject, most people probably think of clinical trials for new drugs, where you wager your health and maybe even life for a handsome payout. But not all research requires you to put yourself in harm's way in order to advance science. There are plenty of opportunities to be part of new research while only risking a paper cut from all the forms you need to fill out.

You do not have to part with body parts in order to participate in research.

We had a few reasons to participate. The first one is rather selfish. The CDC study collected genetic, health and developmental data on 10,000 children and their parents. The anonymized data set will be made available to other researchers as well to check for links or causes for diabetes, heart disease, asthma, allergies or other ailments. To have any hope that someone one day will figure out how to avoid some of the annoying health issues running in the family, we need to make sure our data is in that data set.

But it was also a great opportunity for my son to see science at work. A few months ago we designed our own experiment to find the best-tasting apple. I explained to him that this time the researchers designed the experiment - and we are the apples about which to collect data. Being a proper Golden Delicious he dressed in yellow, and was very excited to see that real scientists use the same type of clipboard he has at home. Finally some role models who are less controversial than Dr. Doofenshmirtz.

Mr Entropy completing a handwriting test for the SEED study.

If you are interested in supporting the advancement of science with a little bit of your own time, you can sign up with one of the volunteer databases listed below. If you know of other local programs looking for volunteers, please leave a link in the comments section.

In Philadelphia:

CDC SEED Study, conducted at CHoP

Online: Joint project of the University of Virginia, the University of California (Irvine), and the University of Southern California, conducting studies on morals, emotions and believes

New England
Harvard University / Boston Children's Hospital, MA:

Johns Hopkins University, MD:
University of Maryland, MD:
Penn State University, PA:
Georgetown University, DC:


Emory University, GA:
Vanderbilt University, TN:

Northwestern University, IL:

University of Chicago, IL:

Friday, June 13, 2014

"I love Science!" - The Song

Read this also on

For almost 4 years I have successfully claimed that the CD with "Wheels on the bus" won't play in my car. But they are on to me, so I am switching to Plan B: diversion. The Beatles, R.E.M and the entire Star Trek Universe soundtrack are so far holding their ground, and are now getting reinforcements from "Hank Green and The Perfect Strangers", in what might be a secret Geek Anthem - "I love Science" from their new album "Incongruent".

The album comes in two versions - clean to sing with the kids on the way to school, and uncensored for the way back. It fills a gaping hole of geeky content on our playlist that is becoming more and more apparent now that my oldest (7) has outgrown the toddler hits. There is no shortage of science songs for small children. Through song and rhymes they learn about the colors of the rainbow, the cycle of seasons and changing weather patterns, the letters of the alphabet, which way the wheels on a bus go (just not in my car), and practice counting with the ants. And then all of a sudden when they turn 8 or 9 they are listening to One Direction and Justin Bieber who sings about ... well, I am not certain. All electronic devices in our house are allergic to his music, so unfortunately (hopefully) we'll never find out what exactly he enriches the universe with. But it is a safe bet that he is not singing about photosynthesis or tectonic plate movements. The children who were excited to have music helping them understand and explore the world around them are suddenly limited to lyrics that (self-)center on human relationships of various sort. The last song I remember that was actually teaching something was "We didn't start the Fire", and that song is 25 years old now.

With that in mind you can hopefully understand my excitement about "Strange Charm: A song about Quarks", or a song explaining Fermi's Paradox, some of the earlier work of Hank Green:

Think about it, the 5 year old who remembers all 47 verses about the Fire Truck can easily turn into an 8 year old who sings along to "I love Science", and later into a full-grown geek memorizing the lyrics to "The Universe is weird" (also on the new CD). Because in days when it is becoming fashionable for everyone and their dog to proclaim geek status, the true geek needs to do one better, and an album named "Incongruent" sounds like just the right thing for that. I am no music expert, but the beats surely can compete with other rock music, they are a good company to the rest of my playlist.

And just imagine about how impressed your roommate/date/spouse will be when you help him/her cleaning up the breakfast table singing "This is how you load a Dishwasher" (also double functions as passive-aggressive reminder).

PS: Don't forget to check out the VlogBrother's YouTube channel for more songs by Hank Green.

Geek Factor: 5 out of 5
Fun Factor: 4 out of 5
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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Fun with Flags - Vá Brasil!

I apologize in advance that my writing will not be as fun, energetic and entertaining as the video episodes from the most hilarious PhD on television. There won't be any Star Trek actors stopping by either.

Can you name these four flags? Answers are in the bottom of this post.

For reasons I do not fully comprehend, it is very easy to fascinate little children about flags. I intend to make the best use of it while it lasts, because I have always considered it good manners to at least know the flags of your neighbors and allies. If only so you won't end up as a sound bite at a late night talk show for not recognizing the flag of Canada.

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and the Guanabara Bay
Nothing better than the upcoming Soccer World Cup to start learning about the big players as well as some exotic countries. A Google image search for "flags coloring pages" yields (luckily labeled) print out versions. Great for wait time at the restaurant or time to kill while traveling (it takes forever to color an entire 8x11 page with crayons ...). has an easy to use alphabetical listing, or click here for a poster of "all flags of the world".

Or if flags on their own are not exciting enough, then cook and eat them.

Bon Appetit!

Geek Factor: 5 out of 5

Four Flags - from top left clockwise: Belgium, Canada, Estonia, Puerto Rico

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