Sunday, November 15, 2009

Computer Programming for Kids

A selection of programming language textbooks ...Image via Wikipedia

At the request of Bonny Glen, here's a list I've compiled of links to help kids learn computer programming. She's looking for Mac-compatible, we're PC, but hopefully some are useful. Just FYI, my older son started with an enrichment class using a really old version of Logo, has taken a few robotics summer workshops, and is currently trying to teach himself computer gaming coding.

Teaching your kids how to write computer programs is an essay by Marshall Brain, creator of It includes a lot of links.

Scratch -- Free Kids Programming Language from MIT

Guido van Robot: Guido van Robot, or GvR for short, is a programming language and free software application designed to introduce beginners to the fundamentals of programming. GvR runs on Windows, Macintosh, and GNU/Linux, in a variety of languages! It's great in both the classroom and the home as a way of introducing people to the basic concepts of programming.

Alice: Free teaching tool designed to be a student's first exposure to object-oriented programming. It allows students to learn fundamental programming concepts in the context of creating animated movies and simple video games in 3-D.

How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning with Python 2nd Edition: Open book project
by Jeffrey Elkner, Allen B. Downey, and Chris Meyers

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No New Posts, But I'm Still Updating

I have stopped writing Family Online columns (for the time being), but I am continuing to update posts as I find new websites. I will also try to add columns that are not online as time allows. Let me know if there's a topic you're interested in!

PS: Many of my posts for's GeekDad blog include useful links. Check it out!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Invented Instruments - Update

This story appeared on NPR today:
[Ranjit] Bhatnagar spent the month of February handcrafting a different musical instrument each day — 28 in all — as part of an online challenge called Thing-A-Day, which asks artists, inventors and anyone with a love of crafts to create something new every day for an entire month and document the process.
Visit Bhatnagar's website to see and hear his creations!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Making (Weird) Music -- Homemade Musical Instruments

Making (Weird) Music -- Homemade Musical Instruments

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is stumbling upon areas of creativity you didn’t even know existed. I was looking for some musical crafts for kids (more on that later) when I discovered a whole world of hobbyists and artists who invent amazing musical instruments. Of course, homemade instruments are as old as the hollow reed, the washtub bass, and the one-man band. But these folks have taken recycled art to a whole new level.

Consider balloon player Judy Dunaway. Since 1990, Dunaway, who has a Ph.D. in music composition, has written over forty works for what most of us consider a party toy. Some links to audio samples (you may want to preview first) show how much more you can do with this “instrument” than mere squeaks. And if you caught the exhibit of Ken Butler’s “hybrid instruments” a few years ago at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA (many of which can be glimpsed on his website), you know what results when you cross a telephone and a violin, or a checkerboard and a guitar. Perhaps the best-known instrument-inventors around are the members of the Blue Man Group. Their website includes details about such PVC-pipe creations as the “drumbone.” Then there’s Benjamin Franklin – statesmen, author, scientist, musical innovator. After hearing a concert played on wine glasses, Franklin came up with the “armonica,” a series of spinning glass bowls that allow the performer to create eerie chords. Dr. Mesmer used the armonica to induce hypnosis, and in the 1800s it was said to drive some listeners insane. Learn all about the armonica, try a virtual version, and listen to its sound, if you dare, at The Franklin Institute’s website.

If you’re looking for more, the website Oddmusic lives up to its name with a gallery of “unique, unusual, ethnic, or experimental” instruments, from the Stalacpipe Organ, to the Stroviols Ukulele, which looks like it’s got a tuba grafted onto it, to the Serpentine Bassoon, an electronic instrument made of red leather that resembles a Chinese dragon and sounds like an out-of-tune orchestra. One of my family’s favorite weird instruments, an early electronic device called the Theremin (think of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” or the soundtrack of the sci-fi classic, “Forbidden Planet”), has its own mini-section here. Another site, Experimental Musical Instruments, features on its gallery includes such wonders as the Video Octavox, an eight-armed device which sits on, and interacts with, a TV. (I couldn’t get the audio clips to play, but the images alone are worth a visit.)

Ready to build some instruments of your own? The kids’ section of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra website has make-at-home projects like a soda bottle Buzzing “Brass” Mouthpiece that demonstrate how the different members of the orchestra work. It’s a lively site with lots of pictures and audio samples of instruments, information on music theory and even games about composers, so be sure to look around while you’re there.

Then there’s John Bertles’s New York City-based group Bash the Trash, which teaches kids to make their own instruments from junk. Instructions are provided for both simple (shaker, horn, rubber-band guitar) and more complex (styrocello, thumb piano) instruments. More Bertles projects can also be found at the Instrument Lab section of the New York Philharmonic’s website for kids. Mudcat, a site about folk music and blues, has directions for a variety of blowers, including the garden hose trumpet and the drinking straw oboe, gourd rattles, drums, banjos and more. And Crafty Music Teacher has tips for building a PVC-pipe bass marimba for only $350 (hey, a real one costs 40 grand!), as well as ideas for house-key chimes, mallets made from superballs and car bushings, and other handy items.

If you’re a kid with a unique homemade instrument you want the world to see, you’re in luck. Teacher Elizabeth Rexford’s Virtual Museum of Music Inventions is a showcase for students who design, build, and write descriptions of their own instruments. There are stills and video clips of entries from past years, information for teachers, and helpful links. As Rexford says, using recycled material to create a new instrument is not just an art: it takes science and math to get it to sound just right. But most importantly, it’s fun -- and that’s music to any kid’s ears.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Math (Feb 2004 - to be updated!)

Math! Do your kids turn a sickly green just at the mention of it? Do you? People may TELL you math can be fun, even beautiful, but if you’ve never believed it, just spend an hour browsing the googles of math sites on the Web (a “google,” of course, is equal to 1 followed by 100 zeros) and you’re sure to change your mind…

Speaking of Google, if you visited that search engine’s homepage on February 3rd, you would have noticed that the logo was decorated with delicately colored designs. If you clicked on it, you were taken to images of Julia fractals -- swirls and shapes, kind of like the old Spirograph toy, that are the manifestation of mathematical formulas.

Why February 3rd? At first the kids and I thought we’d found the answer in that day’s comic pages, where a strip called “The Norm” pointed out that the date expressed in numerical form was 02-03-04. The real explanation turned out to be a nod to mathematician Gaston Maurice Julia, born February 3, 1893 in Sidi Abbes, Algeria. But the really cool thing was a morning spent talking and thinking about the power of numbers.

Some math websites can take you to new realms. Freelance topologist Jeff Weeks has online games including chess, tic tac toe and a mouse in the maze, all with a twist – the surfaces they’re played on curve through the fourth dimension. Amazingly, kids have no trouble figuring these out.

Ivars Peterson writes lively columns about mathematics for Science News (for grownups) and Muse magazine (for kids). Some of his finds include a guide to mathematics in “The Simpsons” (many of whose creators, apparently, hold degrees in physics and math); and an astronomer-turned-househusband who sells glass Klein bottles (the same shape used in the four-dimensional board games) on the side. You can peruse either version of Peterson’s past columns, complete with handy links, by going to or by clicking on “Puzzle Zone” at and going to “MatheMUSEments.” To find a particular topic, Google “Peterson” plus “Science News” plus the topic.

Math problem got you stumped? Over 300 math students from colleges around the country will answer your questions at the “Ask Dr. Math” page of Mathforum, from Drexel University. Dr. Math won’t do your homework for you, but if you show them how far you got, they will, usually, help you get unstuck. Mathforum also offers help for teachers and problems of the week for kids in grades three through twelve.

A good way to find sites that have been prescreened (and this goes for any subject) is to check out the “Links” page of a site you like. I found the website KaBoL (which stands for “Knot a Braid of Links”) run by the Canadian Mathematical Society, on Jeff Week’s site; here you can search from among nearly 300 websites for such topics as Geometry from the Land of the Incas and amazing geometric shapes built from Legos (with computer assistance).

Personally, the sites I liked best were the ones run by and for mathematicians (amateur and “real”). Lists of math links aimed at families tend to be either “schoolish” (i.e., too much like drills) or commercial (i.e., too much like video games and TV). Still, they’re sometimes worth exploring. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics offers Selected Web Resources featuring “mathlets” (interactive math challenges) for teachers and parents. Organized by grade and topic in a clickable chart at, you can skip the boring analysis of the site you want by clicking on “Direct to SWR.”

The math game sites listed by’s parenting section are more the arcade type. They include the online companion to the PBS show Cyberchase, and, which has some nice math graphics as well as “study tips” (and ads). Even the government wants a crack at your budding math whiz. The National Security Agency (subject of a novel by the conspiracy-minded author of “The DaVinci Code”) has a page where kids who are into code making and breaking can explore the rooms of a Cryptic Manor to find hidden links to puzzles.

In fact, when you add it all up, once you start looking for math online the choices are almost infinite. Happy calculating!

Check these out: Google’s Feb. 3 fractal logo:; Four-dimensional board games: (click on the tic-tac-toe board); The Simpsons:; Clifford Stoll’s glass Klein bottles:; Ivars Peterson columns: and; Ask Dr. Math:; KaBoL:; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Selected Web Resources:;’s list of math games for kids:; PBS’s Cyberchase:;; National Security Agency’s kid page: