Sunday, December 16, 2007

Career Exploration

Do you know what you want to be when you grow up? A lot of kids (and even some of us adults!) could use some help figuring out that important question. In the old days, you could go to the school guidance counselor to take an aptitude test. After answering some multiple choice questions about your interests, strengths and personality (“Are you prone to (A) exploring the possibilities or (B) nailing things down?”), you would find out whether you were hairdresser or rocket scientist material. Another tactic was to thumb through an enormous volume called the OOH – Occupational Outlook Handbook. Today you don’t need an appointment with your guidance counselor to start your career exploration, because many of these tools are available on the Internet. Unfortunately, they’re not always free, and they can be complicated to use. But if you’re just looking for ideas and suggestions – not a detailed, personalized analysis -- there are a few good places to begin your search for the job path that will suit you best.

The OOH, put out by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, has descriptions of hundreds of different occupations. It tells you what the job is like, education and training requirements, how much it pays, and whether the need for people in that job is growing, staying the same, or shrinking. And not only is the online version less of a strain on the shoulders than the hardcopy, it’s also easier to browse, thanks to the website’s search features. It also has links to professional organizations and other places where you can find out more about the job that interests you. Not everything about it is high-tech, though. Like the book, the website’s information is only updated every two years, so some statistics in the 2006-2007 edition go back to 2004 – eons when it comes to some areas of the job market. But the BLS website does offer archives of the Occupational Outlook Quarterly magazine (the most recent being Summer 2007) and other resources. There’s also a well-designed kids’ section with a little less detail and links back to the main OOH.

Many professional organizations themselves have kids’ sections with information about different specialties and how to enter the field, such as Ocean Explorer, Young Eagles (aviation) and the US Dept. of Agriculture.

For general information, the University of California at Berkeley’s online Career Library has links to career descriptions from other reliable sites, including the Department of Labor and other colleges. Another valuable resource is the Vocational Information Center for high school students, created and maintained by retired educator Kathryn Hake. Hake’s site focuses on technical and vocational careers and trade schools. The College Board, maker of the SATs and Achievement Tests, also has a Majors and Careers section with general information. Pathways to the World of Work, which has links to sites about self-assessment and career exploration, is a website for teens from the Connecticut Department of Labor. And the New York State Dept. of Labor Career Zone for teens presents current and relevant occupational and labor market Information in a clear and interesting way, making career exploration and planning fun and easy.

And if you’re curious about online aptitude tests but don’t want to shell out the subscription fee, there are a couple sample tests you can try. Rutgers University’s Pre-College Career Planning webpage offers a free “interests assessment” based on John Holland's “Theory of Vocational Choice,” which classifies students into six different categories: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional. And the Princeton Review, the well-known test-prep company, has a free 24-question Career Quiz that rates your interest and job style. Some organizations, like Boys and Girls Clubs and Junior Achievement, have free online tests that are available to members only, although Junior Achievement’s career information pages are open to all.

Remember, take any career aptitude tests with a grain of salt. I tried three different surveys, and came up with three different versions of what I’d like best! Experts say the most useful thing about interest assessments is the possibility they’ll point you in some unexpected directions. That perfect career is out there – so get looking!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


By John Ceceri (with help from Kathy Ceceri)

Why are Lego toys so much fun? It might be their bright colors. It could be the cool themes such as Star Wars, Bionicle (a mystical storyline about biomechanical warriors with magical masks, with related books, movies and comics), Exo-Force (a line where humans take on robots wearing giant battlesuits) and others. Or maybe it’s the playability that lets you can take apart a set and make a whole new model. Whatever the reason, Lego has a giant fanbase, from 5-year-olds to Adult Fans of Lego (AFOL). And those fans have made several websites about their favorite subject: chat rooms, databases and even “my own creation” (MOC) sites, where you can upload pictures of Lego models you’ve designed yourself. Although most sites are for AFOL, there are some just for younger fans. Here are my favorites:

I had been a big Lego fan for a few years when I discovered, the official Lego website, at age 11. has good places for fans to talk to each other, post photos of models they’ve made, and see new Lego sets. It also has Lego Factory, a part of the site where you can download software which lets you make a 3-D drawing of a Lego model, then upload it to and show it off, or even buy your model. In the Pick-A-Brick section, you can buy single bricks instead of a whole set. And you can even enter in codes from Lego Bionicle and Exo-Force sets to get cool online stuff!

For a while I posted on Lego’s message boards, but it wasn't long until I started looking at the fansites, especially those for kids. BZPower is the main Bionicle fan site with over 37,000 members, and the top Bionicle news source. Members discuss topics like the most heroic heroes and villainous villains or which set they regret getting. My own websites -- Lair of the Piraka (a Bionicle forum) and The Robot’s Workshop (an Exo-Force forum) -- don’t have many members, but they are starting to get more.

For AFOL, Eurobricks has large forums to post in and the latest Lego news. And the news from Europe often includes photos of sets that haven’t been released yet. Some sites won’t post leaked images, some forbid even discussing the future sets, but they sure are tempting. A tip about posting in general: make sure you follow the rules, such as not creating duplicate topics or adding to “zombie topics” (topics that haven’t had new posts for a long while). Some of these sites will ban you if you don’t.

Brickshelf is a photo-hosting website just for Legos, where the tags include train layouts and snapshots of the Legoland theme parks. But most MOC sites let you post photos and get comments on them. MOCpages features large models like the diorama combining characters from Indiana Jones, Dr. Who, and H.P. Lovecraft, or the Blacktron Intelligence Agency, a space base that takes up four tables. From Bricks to Bothans, the main the Lego Star Wars fan site, also has photos of Star Wars MOCs and a forum where members can comment.

Then there are Lego databases like Brickset, which lets you search by theme or year, going back to 1961. Members can keep track of all the sets they own -- and make wishlists of the ones they want. Brickwiki, which is (as the name suggests) a wiki about Lego, has information on its history, themes, and famous people (according to Lego fans), along with different building techniques such as SNOT (“studs not on top” – in other words, upside down). There are also links to all the other major Lego sites.

From grandfather clocks to harpsichords to automated factories that use Lego Mindstorm computer technology to build cars out of Lego pieces, there’s practically nothing that hasn’t been made out of Legos. Professional Lego model builders can make you a Bart Simpson or a mosaic of the Mona Lisa to order. But perhaps one of the strangest projects is the Brick Testament, where a minifig Adam and Eve live in a Lego Garden of Eden. Maybe the best part of Legos is that, no matter what your interests, it’s so easy to join in the fun.

Family Online Picks:


Lair of the Piraka

The Robot's Workshop




From Bricks to Bothans



The Brick Testament

Friday, October 05, 2007

At-Home Science Activities

If you’re a kid, you’ve probably never heard of Mr. Wizard. And you’ll never know the thrill of owning a genuine Mr. Wizard chemistry set. Mr. Wizard, otherwise known as Don Herbert, hosted TV’s first science show, back when kids were encouraged to go out and experiment with chemicals, rockets, and other exciting phenomena. But because times have changed, a company that recently tried to update the Mr. Wizard chemistry set had to settle for balloons, clay, and laundry starch instead of the chemicals included in the original set. And it’s not just toys that have changed: even some schools are cutting back on chemistry labs. As a result, one classroom chemistry expert told Wired Magazine last year, “Kids are being robbed of the joy of discovering things for themselves.”

But doing science at home is not a lost art. It may take some effort, a willingness to get messy, and an eye towards safety, but many of the materials needed for exciting at-home experiments are still available, if you know what to look for. And as usual, the Internet can help. With projects for everyone from the faint-of-heart to the foolhardy, you’re sure to find something on the websites below that send adults and kids alike rushing to turn your kitchen or workshop into the family laboratory.

Mr. Wizard famously inspired a generation of scientists, teachers, and science showmen, and leading the pack right now is Steve Spangler. Remember the Diet Coke and Mentos craze? That all started with a video segment Spangler did for his local Denver NBC affiliate. His website has tons of uncomplicated video and written experiments in categories such as States of Matter, Light and Sound, or All about Air. There’s so much good content here, I don’t even mind that it’s primarily an online catalogue for Spangler’s science toys, kits and supplies. (And by the way, the products -- aimed at elementary school age and younger -- are excellent.)

Science educator Robert Krampf, who takes his live high-voltage electricity show to schools for Florida Power and Light, also offers nearly 30 fun and easy science video clips on his website, just a fraction of the 300 plus at-home explorations you can read. They may not be as dramatic as a traveling million-volt Tesla coil, but they’re still pretty cool. Join Krampf’s YahooGroup to get an Experiment of the Week emailed to you or just browse the archives. Like Spangler’s experiments, Krampf’s activities are simple enough for younger kids, but they include suggestions for continuing the experiment at a higher level.

Want more of a challenge? Hila Science Camp in Ottawa, Canada has online directions and videos for such projects as a lemon battery, a two-tone alarm with a paper cone speaker, a printable star finder, and a medieval trebuchet for storming castles. The graphics on Teacher Slater Harrison’s Science Toy Maker website may look out of date, but the projects -- a Bangladesh toy steam boat, an air rocket and launcher, and an electronic lie detector -- are exciting and kid-tested. There are also lots of links to other science activity sites, too, such as the video search engine Science Hack, which promises that every entry is screened by a scientist. Finally, if Danger is your middle name, you’ll love SciToys. Not just because the Fresnel Lens marshmallow cooker starts flaming within seconds, or author Simon Quellen Field will email you right back with the answer to a question about building it. It’s because the projects have scary names (the Plastic Hydrogen Bomb is really a high-tech squirt gun), and they work. The SciToys catalog is also a good, cheap source of materials used in projects.

Don Herbert passed away in June at the age of 89, but his spirit lives on. So release your inner science nerd, take the family outside and drop a tube of Mentos into a bottle of Diet Soda today!

Thursday, September 27, 2007


(Animation for Sesame Street by Michael Sporn)

From the earliest pen-and-ink novelties to the most sophisticated computer-generated full-length features, animated films have always been a cross between art and magic. Of course, they’re part science too: it’s the split-second afterimage in our brains (known as “persistence of vision”) that makes us think a speeding series of still pictures is actually a scene in motion. But it’s the animator’s tricks, plus the ability of great animators to “act” through their imaginary characters, that really makes animated images come alive.

As a young artist I learned some of those tricks as an apprentice to two masters of the hand-drawn animated film. Working as an “in-betweener” on Michael Sporn’s Oscar-nominated “Dr. DeSoto” showed me how speed and rhythm reveals a character’s personality. And John Canemaker – whose autobiographical film “The Moon and the Son” won last year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Short – taught me that good animators are good observers, recreating the world using only line and color. But today with the Internet, you can learn from the pros without ever leaving home. Whether you prefer traditional Disney-style or anime cel animation, stop-motion with puppets or clay a la Wallace and Gromit, or the 3-D computer images of films like “Happy Feet” and “Ratatouille,” there are sites that will introduce you to old classics and show you the latest techniques. You can even post your work online and get feedback from other students and veteran animators. So get ready to start making movies!

The most basic trick used by animators to make the invented look real is exaggeration, and the first lesson in every animation drawing course is squashing and stretching a bouncing ball. Larry's Toon Institute (by Larry Lauria, who helped design Disney's Magic Artist software), goes from the bouncing ball to character construction, timing, posing and learning how to “thumbnail,” or plan out, a scene. The site is part of the Student Corner at the Animation World Network, which also offers forums, advanced how-to’s, and Animation World Magazine, with columnists including Bart Simpson’s voice, Nancy Cartwright. Another site, Karmatoons, by Doug Compton, whose credits include Bugs Bunny, gives you his wonderfully-illustrated teaching notes from his time with the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon Art. Then there’s Acme Animation, where you can print out instructions on the bouncing ball and watch a video on how to make a flour sack fall. Pay the $99 registration fee, however, and there’s much more to this online school. Acme members can post their projects for public viewing and get feedback from other students and working professionals. As you work your way through more advanced levels you’re developing a portfolio that can help you get into art school or even a job in animation.

Lots of kids begin making animated films with clay, puppets, and other objects that are easy to move around. At, you can find forums for your questions on technique, and the links page is extensive. Their related site, StopMoShorts, offers “puppet training” challenges such as walking, tripping, jumping and dueling. When you’ve completed the challenge, post your video for feedback. There are also interviews with such titans of the art form as Ray Harryhausen (“Jason and the Argonauts”), tutorials, and clips from classic films. I’ve mentioned Brickfilms before but I love it: Lego pieces are used for the sets -- and the stars.

Kids who want to learn computer animation can check out the Flash Animation tutorial by Samik Dutta, a 16-year-old homeschooler from India, at the Amazing Kids Animation Station. (Flash is the software used for a lot of the animated website elements.) The site also offers a showcase just for kids to display their animated videos.’s animation page has a Flash Kids' Corner with lessons for ages 12 and under, as well as a list of free computer animation software you can download. And you can get a behind-the-scenes look at the studio that practically invented 3D computer animation at the Pixar website.

Finally, if you’re interested in the history of animated films, the online Optical Toys Exhibit at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics shows you such early devices as the Zoetrope, Kinora, Magic Lantern and Stereoscope in action. And my mentor, Michael Sporn, keeps a blog (his “Splog”) which riffs on animators past and present and has a blogroll worth checking out.

Update: Just found, a website about the history of flipbooks, with video clips of some antiques. (Translated from the French.)

Still more updates: Animation Mentor is an online school for advanced character animation.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Amusement Parks (August 2005)

We just got back from Coney Island, so this column seems especially appropriate!

Not being thrillseekers in general, we only made our first trip as a family to a “big kid” amusement park, The Great Escape in Lake George, this year. But all those giant rides and extreme roller coasters sure looked exciting (at least from the ground). If you want to know what you’re getting yourself in for when you make your pilgrimage to a major amusement park, or just want to enjoy some vicarious thrills, try swinging by some of these amazing websites.

The idea of amusement parks goes back to ancient Rome, but the early 1900s was when trolley companies looking to drum up weekend business built waterside picnic groves, which soon morphed into lively places like Coney Island. Midway Plaisance (the name means “pleasure ground”) is a site about the history and design of parks and rides; it also tells you how to get the most out of a visit. For hardcore advice, turn to Theme Park Insider, an award-winning, independent consumers' guide to parks in Orlando, Anaheim, and around the world. There’s news, rumors and safety information, and users’ opinions of attractions, restaurants and hotels. For Disney deals, MouseSavers has coupons, discount codes, and membership bargains for theme parks and resorts at and around Disney World and Disneyland.

If you’re a roller coaster fan, the Roller Coaster DataBase has information and statistics on over 1800 roller coasters worldwide. The site Joyrides is a bit out of date, sadly, but contains excellent still photos of some US amusement parks, along with links and tips for taking exciting roller coaster photos of your own. And on the brand-new website you can listen to podcasts online, with links, or join the discussion in the forums.

Of course, you don’t have to leave your computer to experience the ride of your life. Build your own coaster on the Travel Channel theme parks page, using loops, corkscrews and boomerangs, and then see how it scores on the Fear-o-Meter. Funderstanding’s simulation lets you see how thrilling you can make your coaster without sending the riders into outer space. Set the height of the hills, the size of the loop, the speed and mass of the cars, the amount of friction on the track -- even how much gravity your park has – and then let ‘er rip. Learn how rides work and why they’re scary in the Physics of Amusement Park section of the animated Virtual Science Center Virtual Science Center, a Japanese site, which includes directions for a soda bottle gravity meter you can test at the playground. Or find out how to make an accelerometer from an old tennis ball tube and a fishing weight at ThinkQuest.

There’s do-it-yourself, and then there’s people who design their own real-life amusement park rides. All the animals on the Totally Kid Carousel in New York City’s Harlem were adapted from kids’ drawings, and they are amazing: Adriana Francisco’s chihuaha, Tanya Garcia’s lobster, Taji Okolo’s beautiful blue rabbit. And some pretty neat videos can be found by searching for backyard roller coasters, like metalworker John Ivers’ single-loop “Blue Flash.”

Food is a big part of the park experience. Cotton candy’s been around since the 1890s, and Nathan’s hot dogs are still a boardwalk favorite. But if you grew up in the sixties the fries from Palisades Amusement Park in Fort Lee, NJ may bring back fond memories. Here’s a recipe to try at home: Peel and krinkle-cut five potatoes into large pieces and place in a half gallon pitcher filled with about 5 ounces of malt vinegar and the rest filled with water. Fry in corn oil at medium temperature for two minutes until almost done. Remove and drain. Raise the heat to high, and just before serving, drop the potatoes back into oil for 70 seconds. Drain and sprinkle liberally with salt. Serve in a cone-shaped paper cup, topped with more vinegar. And remember to give yourself time to digest before getting on the Ferris wheel…

Family Online Picks:

The Great Escape (
Midway Plaisance (
Theme Park Insider (
MouseSavers (
Roller Coaster DataBase (
Joyrides (
CoasterRadio (
TravelChannel (
Funderstanding (
Virtual Science Center (
ThinkQuest (
Totally Kid Carousel (
Blue Flash video (
Palisades Amusement Park (

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Kids are full of ideas, and some of them turn out to be great inventions. Chester Greenwood of Maine came up with the idea for earmuffs while out skating in 1873, when he was 15 – and later made a fortune selling them to U.S. soldiers during World War I. The Popsicle was accidentally created by 11-year-old Frank Epperson when he left a sugary drink with the stirring stick still in it on his back porch during a cold snap in 1905. And in 1963, Tom Sims built the first snowboard in his eighth-grade shop class. Today you’ll find all kinds of websites on inventors of the past and present, as well as information, games, and contests to help inspire inventors of the future. Here’s just a sampling of what’s out there:

If you’d like to find out about inventions and inventors, Enchanted Learning’s page of brief but inclusive descriptions includes gadgets ranging from adhesive tape to zippers and US and Canadian notables from Mary Anderson, developer of the windshield wiper, to Frank J. Zamboni, who perfected his ice resurfacer in 1949. The Virtual Museum of Ancient Inventions at Smith College is a collection of impressive student-made replicas of artifacts dating back thousands of years, including household items like looms and candles, as well as a battery from 250 BCE and a steam engine from the first century., the website of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, contains biographies of nearly 400 innovative honorees from the 1700s to today. Among the present and past names added to the list this year were King Gillette, famous for his razors, and stained glass lampmaker Louis Tiffany. And since 1996, six bright minds have been added every year to the National Gallery for America’s Young Inventors, where you can read comic strips explaining how each inductee came up with their award-winning idea.

Some invention websites don’t just talk about the subject, they let you participate as well. When you’re done browsing the Inventor of the Week archives at MIT’s Invention Dimension, you can try your hand at games that look at the connections between inventions, test yourself with “Which Came First, or take a trivia challenge. There’s also links on science and invention education, news, and contests. The MIT program was established by Jerome Lemelson, one of the world's most prolific inventors, and his wife, Dorothy, who also are behind the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution. The Center’s website, Invention at Play, shows how fooling around leads to new discoveries. Along with inventors’ own stories and articles on the importance of play, and an online exhibit of toys, the site has all kinds of interactive opportunities for solving puzzles, doodling, writing collaborative stories, and more. Then there’s The Great Idea Finder, from the Vaunt Design Group. It’s not only full of invention resources on the Web, the bookshelf, and the screen (TV and DVD, that is), there’s even an Idea Wish List, where you can suggest something – sugarless chocolate, hair straightening shampoo, or a tool to make your hamster quiet at night – that YOU would like to see someone invent. (My only quibble with the site is that the grammar in the articles is sloppy.)

Inventors can share their ideas with the world through contests, online, and even on TV. (The Ellen DeGeneres Show invites kids 5 to 10 years old to show off their inventions.) By Kids For Kids goes further, by actually researching, developing and marketing kids’ ideas, for free. But the first step in selling an invention is to protect your idea, so you’ll get the credit due AND the profits! The US Trademark and Patent Office Kids Page walks you through the steps (and it’s also lots of fun – try the Trademarked Sounds page). So get your family thinking – you’ll never know where it’ll lead!

Family Online Picks:

Enchanted Learning - US and Canadian Inventors and Inventions

Smith College Ancient Inventions

National Inventors Hall of Fame

National Gallery for America’s Young Inventors

MIT Invention Dimension

Invention at Play

The Great Idea Finder

US Trademark and Patent Office Kids Page

Ellen DeGeneres

By Kids For Kids

Solar Wind and Water has its own blog!

Scoot over to to find all the posts from this summer's ACC class. I'll be posting new info as I find it from time to time as well. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Save the Planet

So what did you do for Earth Day 2007? If the Oscar for “An Inconvenient Truth” and the more than 1,400 Step It Up demonstrations which took place around the country last month are any sign, the environment has become a hot topic. And kids are naturally going to want to find out more. But for many children, hearing dire predictions and scary statistics about pollution and global warming is plain depressing; after all, this is their future we’re talking about. So with my own kids, and the students in my “Solar, Wind and Water Power” class, a focus on what individuals and communities can do to help protect our planet – especially projects they can try at home -- has been the way to go. A search for “kids” and “renewable energy” will turn up many useful sites. Here are some worth visiting:

Government agencies, utility companies and other commercial energy suppliers, and environmental advocates all have websites for kids with general information about energy alternatives. Just be aware that each has its own slant on the subject. The Kid’s Info page of Solar Energy International, a nonprofit educational organization, answers questions about the difference between solar thermal (heat) and photovoltaic (electricity-generating) energy, how PV cells work, and other interesting topics. Divided into sections for younger and older kids, it’s clearly written and integrated with useful links. Alliant Energy, a Wisconsin energy holding company, has a kids’ section on Energy and the Environment, with a page on renewable resources including biomass and geothermal. Explanations are concise and come with illustrations and links to photos and videos of actual installations such as wind turbines that tower over the Spirit Lake, Iowa, school playground.

Kids Korner, a feature available on the websites of power companies such as the Tri-State (sic) Generation and Transmission Association of Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and New Mexico, is aimed at a younger audience, with helpful (if sometimes cloying) graphics. The U.S. Energy Information Agency’s Kids Page may be a bit over-detailed and hard to follow, but along with energy facts it offers virtual field trips to different energy producers from oil rigs to wind turbines, the history and the people involved, an Energy Conversion Calculator and more. And at the US Dept of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (Motto: “Bringing you a prosperous future where energy is clean, abundant, reliable and affordable”), Dr. E’s Energy Lab (at a new URL since last mentioned in this column) has links to helpful sites.

Hands-on projects are a great way to learn about renewable energy. Re-Energy, a site from the Canada-based Pembina Institute, which works on environmental policy, has easy-to-follow construction plans for a wind turbine, biogas generator, solar car and more. Build It Solar has an excellent page of links to solar projects for kids, along with info for building “real” energy systems and eco-friendly entire houses. And the Solar Cooking Archive is the Internet authority on solar cookers of all kinds, with directions, recipes, and interesting information on how solar cookers are being used in parts of the world where traditional fuels are not available.

There ARE websites that can be helpful if you’re looking for a quick overview of global warming, or your kids are ready to delve into the details of climate change. Despite its wishy-washy approach – the overwhelming agreement of experts notwithstanding, the site only concedes that “many of the world's leading climate scientists” think human activity is helping to make the Earth warmer -- the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Change Kids Site is fairly complete and is presented in an easy-to-understand format. And The Weather Channel has a site called Climate Change - Forecast Earth, with short informative videos and news links. But I would steer clear of sites like’s Kids Channel, whose cartoon penguin hosts presents facts about “megadeaths,” plague and Chernobyl, and blames global warming on “adults - including your parents and family.” Kids need hope, and it’s out there. As, the website for “An Inconvenient Truth” (and yes, my children did see and appreciate the movie) says:

“There is no doubt we can solve this problem. In fact, we have a moral obligation to do so. Small changes to your daily routine can add up to big differences in helping to stop global warming. The time to come together to solve this problem is now – take action.”

Family Online Picks:

An Inconvenient Truth

Step it Up

Solar Energy International

Alliant Energy Kids

Kids Korner

U.S. Energy Information Agency

Dr. E’s Energy Lab


Build It Solar

Solar Cooking

EPA Climate Change for Kids

The Weather Channel Climate Change - Forecast Earth

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Oceans (May 2005)

We don’t live anywhere near the sea, but we still love to go to the shore. It may be a while before we get there again, but in the meantime we can enjoy a virtual voyage with marine scientists, learn about navigators of old, and watch creatures from the deep, live, on our own computer screen. The ocean offers so many interesting topics to explore that it’s hard to pick just a few. But here’s a quick selection I liked, plus some portholes, I mean portals, with links to dozens more.

Follow the day-to-day workings of scientists from Cape Cod as they use the submersible Alvin – the same craft that examined the wreck of the Titanic -- on the Dive and Discover section of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s website. When an expedition is in progress you can read regular updates, view videos and slides, solve puzzles, and even email the crew with your questions. If you missed this year’s voyage to the Gal├ípagos Rift to study hydrothermal vents (May 20 through June 3), sign up and they’ll let you know when the next expedition will take place. In the Pacific, the NeMO Project studies the Axial Seamount, an active volcano off the coast of Washington. This year’s expedition was not covered live, but you can see what a real voyage looks like through computer simulations and actual footage taken by their remote vehicle ROPOS of underwater steam vents and the interesting life that exists near them.

Or get a taste of the sea the way Columbus did by trying some of the wonderful activities described in “The Age of Exploration,” an online exhibit of The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia. We’ve built and used their printable astrolabe and quadrant, made our own primitive compass, and even enjoyed their recipe for hardtack. (To make it really authentic, though, you have to add weevils….) Modern-day adventurers will want to check out the University of Wisconsin’s site Underwater Exploration, which has information on diving, underwater archeology, and directions for an experiment that shows what happens when you get the bends. Wish you were there right now? See if the surf’s up down the shore with the webcams at Point Pleasant Beach, NJ. Or go to Yahoo! for 30 other beach cams.

While marine life can be fascinating, some species, sadly, have a face that only a mother (or a scientist) could love. Dr. Steve O'Shea of the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, is so enamored of squid that he holds the world record for keeping one alive in captivity. His current project is raising baby broad squid in a tank in his laboratory.You can visit the little squirts, complete with creepy eyeballs, on the real-time, remote-controlled SquidCam. (“Now with Extra-Active Squid!”) Next O’Shea hopes to move on to giant squid -- yikes. Manatees look like melted elephants, but see for yourself on the ManateeCam at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Florida. The Park serves is a rehabilitation center and refuge for orphaned or injured animals.

Whales aren’t cuddly, but at least they’re better lookin’. And Lucy, the amazing do-it-yourself, life-size, inflatable whale you build using about $60 worth of materials from the home and garden store will feel like a member of your family in no time. She’s fits in an ordinary gym bag and is light enough for one person to carry! Order the directions for $10 from WhaleNet, a site created by Wheelock College in Boston.

Not swamped yet? Send budding oceanographers to OceanWorld from Texas A&M for easy-to-understand info on topics like waves and icebergs and recommended links. The website for NASA’s SeaWFS (Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor), which guages the color of the ocean to learn about marine plantlife, is another good launching point for further discovery. Scroll down to How Deep Can They Go? and click on the objects on the chart (including the Titanic, submarines, and whales) for links. You’ll also find links to other sites, such as: Ocean Planet, an exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution with fact sheets, stories by “Jaws” author Peter Benchley, and The JASON Foundation for Education (formerly The JASON Project), a program that schools, homeschoolers and families can pay to join. Founded by Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard, JASON sends some lucky Student and Teacher Argonauts every year to work side by side with scientists at actual expedition sites.

Just for fun, NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, has links to printable activities, coloring pages and other ocean-themed sites for young children. And, a site where marine life scientists can find research, news, and trends and highlight the work they’re doing, has a kids’ page with links to online science games and activities. But if your kids really can’t wait to get to the seashore, let them make sandcastle sculptures at home that’ll keep forever with this recipe from Just take 3 cups of sand, 1 1/2 cups cornstarch and 1 1/2 cup of water. Mix and cook over low heat in an old pot until thick. Spoon it out onto newspaper, shape, and dry. And happy sailing!

Family Online Picks: WHOI Dive and Discover (; NeMO (; Mariner’s museum (; Underwater Exploration (; Yahoo! beach cams (; SquidCam

(; ManateeCam (; Lucy (; OceanWorld (; SeaWFS (; NOAA (; MarineBio (

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


When the kids (or you) get sick, there’s no better tool than the Internet for checking out symptoms and finding a range of possible fixes, from mainstream to alternative to old wives' tales. But sorting through all the information you may find is vital. Is the advice you’re getting coming from a recognized researcher, or the 21st century version of a snake oil salesman? You need a list of reliable health sites you can count on as soon as fevers start to rise and everyone feels lousy. But for those in-between times, advice for sifting through the advice is just as important. Here’s some of both:

You can find links to pre-screened health care sites in general, and New York State services in particular, on the Health Information Center at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls. Included is Crandall Medical Librarian Guinevere Forshey’s useful article called “The ABC’s of Evaluating Online Consumer Health Information.” Among her suggestions:

Ask yourself “Am I getting both sides of the issue?” Opinions are different from facts and they should be clearly stated as opinions. “Are they trying to sell me something?” A quality health site will not disguise advertising as facts. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Look for sites that give the author’s education or training. Good websites will have contact information that is easy to find and will include a phone number, postal and email addresses.

Forshey recommends Medline Plus from the National Library of Medicine & the National Institute of Health as a great place to get started. It has info on all kinds of topics, as well as its own list of links about interpreting and evaluating health websites. There’s even a medical encyclopedia and dictionary and links to health news from the last 30 days.

Forshey’s picks for parents include KidsHealth (“up-to-date information about growth, food and fitness, childhood infections, immunizations, lab tests, medical and surgical conditions, and the latest treatments”) and Family Doctor (“great information on common conditions from the American Academy of Family Physicians”). Both sites have facts for grownups, a fun section on the human body for kids, and topics teens are interested in, such as eating disorders and sex. Another Forshey standout is the Parents' Common Sense Encyclopedia by pediatrician Jeffrey Hull. It’s a quick-reference online parenting manual for questions about chilblains, knock knees, and other common childhood ailments. A library of pediatric textbooks for patients and health professionals are available at the Virtual Pediatric Hospital. And the medical library Medem has a section on children's health, as well as a free monthly newsletter, the Medem Smart Parents' Health Source e-mail service.

For some parents, sources like the ones above may take too much of a medical approach to some problems, especially behavioral questions like co-sleeping and discipline. Finding qualified experts who are open to alternative parenting options is hard, but AskDrSears may be a good choice. The Sears clan -- William Sears, MD, his wife, Martha Sears, RN, and their sons James and Robert, also pediatricians – have shared their advice with both TV news shows and attachment parenting magazines like Mothering. Their website is full of opinionated insight into breast and bottle feeding, sleep problems, fussy babies and other parenting concerns.

Nor should die-hard skeptics worry. There’s a site for you, too. Quackwatch, written by psychiatrist Stephen Barrett, is on a mission to attack misleading advertising and investigate questionable claims. If nothing else, his articles – on infomercials, homeopathic remedies and acupuncture -- will makes you think twice about alternative medicine. Barrett is also behind the Internet Health Pilot, billed as “Your Gateway to Reliable Health Information.” These related sites give searching strategies, tips for telling if a site is “quacky,” and a links to sites they like.

One of those sites is Keep Kids Healthy, written by pediatrician Vincent Ianelli. Most sites will give you medical advice, but Ianelli’s is the only one I’ve seen that delivers it in the form of haiku:


A bark like a seal
Trouble breathing and hoarse cry.
Try some steam or mist.

One final note: Forshey advises always checking with your healthcare provider before following any medical advice on the Web.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Recycled Toys and Gifts (December 2006)

This time of year always puts me in a do-good mood, and recycling discarded household materials into holiday toys and gifts certainly fits the bill. The list of things people make from old stuff is endless: sock puppets and sweater dolls; model cars, bikes and planes made from wire wrapped with cloth; coasters, placemats woven from gum wrapper chains; melted vinyl records bowls; juice cartons or packets turned into purses, wallets and tote bags; and rag rugs crocheted out of plastic grocery bags. Although turning trash into treasure is a great way to help save the planet, the idea didn’t start with the new wave of hip crafters. In places like Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where new materials are scarce and nothing is wasted, people have been making artwork and playthings from empty containers, old machine parts and the like for generations. For a great introduction to the topic, visit the traveling exhibit Recycled, Re-Seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap at the website of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe.

Whether made by Third World artisans or local urban artists, recycled crafts are hot in gift shops around the area and online. This column was inspired by a beautiful angel pin made out of a Coke can and wire by disabled artisans from Kenya that I recently picked up at Mango Tree Imports in Ballston Spa, NY. Such Fair Trade retailers deal with companies that often help entire communities prosper. Some, like Ten Thousand Villages, which also has a store in Northampton, let you order online; for others, like Mango Tree, you may have to call to have an order shipped. But their websites are always interesting. That’s the case with Indigo Arts, a folk art store in Philadelphia. Their Recycled Art and Toy Bazaar offers soda can bugs from Vietnam, Indian glass bangle picture frames, purses woven from potato chip bags from Honduras, and fluffy plastic bag & wire chickens from South Africa. At One World Projects, you’ll find silver necklaces made from melted-down Austrian coins that were used in Ethiopia and other African countries for over 200 years, as well as cute junkyard critters assembled from nuts and bolts in Vietnam, recycled paper journals from Uganda, and tote bags made from recycled Mayan women’s blouses in Guatemala. And at the Eco-artware website, which carries products such as stuffed warthogs made from soft reclaimed sweaters, Scrabble tile tree ornaments, and bicycle chain bottle openers, there’s information on the more than 25 environmentally-conscious artists who make the pieces, plus a crafts how-to archive.

Inspired to try some recycled artwork of your own? Finding directions for easy recycled toys and gifts is easy -- this is one topic where a straightforward search will get you just what you’re looking for. You can also find lists of links for kids’ crafts on sites like The Imagination Factory, all about making art from garbage, which has a Trash Matcher with links organized by the type of “solid waste” you’re starting with. Scouting Web’s links will take you to directions for making melted vinyl record bowls and magazine page beads. Then there are sites that offer their own directions, such as Recycling Revolution (no pictures, unfortunately) and Making Friends, which specializes in using items families in particular tend to accumulate, like baby food jars, tissue boxes, and toilet paper tubes. Not aimed at kids per se, but still full of good projects, is the Make Things section of WikiHow, a contributor-written site; check out the sections on personal accessories and duct tape projects.

Some sites are worth looking at just for inspiration. Flickr’s Tips for Recycling and Reusing Pool, an online photo album of crafts, sometimes, but not always, includes links to directions. The math- and science-oriented Toys from Trash website, created by a science teacher in India, has photos of projects, but finding directions takes some work. And see what kids are doing at Happen’s Toy Lab in Cincinnati, where visitors put together new creations from old toy parts.

Of course, recycled gifts deserve recycled giftwrap. Artist John Boak’s Wrap Art galleries have tons of ideas on how to make your gifts look fantastic using fragments of paper and miscellaneous items from around your house. Unique gifts that make life better for all of us – what a great way to celebrate the holidays!