Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Tomato Business

When we started talking about our garden for the year, my girls were adamant about growing cherry tomatoes. Usually I do a few heirloom slicing tomatoes, a few Roma's for sauce and then various grape tomatoes, like Yellow Pear, for snacking. This year, though, they wanted proper cherry tomatoes.

Following on that though, the girls has another: Wouldn't it be awesome to sell tomatoes at the Farmer's Market? The kids and I spend a fair amount of time at the market over the summer and early fall, because I do free crafts and games for kids at the Blairstown market. To my girls, selling at the market is pretty much the apex of vegetable growing. It is somethign to aspire towards.

Obviously, I couldn't let that ideas get away. So, off we went for seeds and starter trays. The trays turned into quite the discussion at the store, because there are so many different types available now. It was a great opportunity to talk about "value added" items and how you can trade money to save time or make up for minimal expertise by selecting more expensive items. In the end, the girls selected a fairly inexpensive Jiffy seed starter greenhouse set.

Jiffy 5049 Professional Greenhouse 36-Plant Starter Kit

We also spent time comparing the various tomato seeds and discussing why organic seeds are more expensive that conventional. This led to a talk about the practices used by different seed companies. And, of course, there was a discussion about the various varieties of cherry tomatoes available, planting times, days to maturity, etc. All of which led to a discussion about why it may be a better idea to research seed companies and use mail order catalogs next year, both for better price and better selection.

The next day we got to work planting the seeds. The girls wanted to know why you plant multiple seeds in each pot, then cut all but the strongest later. It was a great chance to review the fact that not every seed germinates and that you want to only keep the one strongest plant, rather than allow all the plants to compete for resources like water and sunlight, making them all weak. In total, we were hoping to have 36 cherry tomato plants!

By the way, I wanted to share a handy tip, for planting any smaller seed, passed down from my dad. We used toothpicks to make the tiny holes needed for the seeds. Then, touching the wet toothpick gently to the seed picks it up and makes it easy to transfer to the soil.

We also took to time to figure out a budget for how much their tomato business would cost to start and operate. We determined what the cost would be per pint of tomatoes we raise, and what we planned to charge for the produce. We factored in the cost of the initial seeds and pots, the soil, water and fertilizer over the season, pint containers to sell the tomatoes in, and even a fee to the market for selling our tomatoes. In the end we set a goal for how much we hope to make off of the project, after paying back expenses.

Before long, our plants germinated! Huzzah! Lots of leafy green. But the girls noticed that not every soil pellet had a plant. So I set Caitie to the task of counting those that had grown and we created a pie chart based on the data. We also talked about how we could calculate and express our germination rate. Now they're ready to go in the ground, and we'll be watching to see how they do from here.

Making toons with iPad... for FREE

Our family recently bought a shiny new iPad 3. For the kids education... totally. It's an amazing device, of course. My girls took to it quickly, playing games and exploring. One thing my eldest daughter wants to do is make movies, and I'm hoping that the iPad will give her some tools for that purpose. Caitie and I decided we'd give cartoon making a try first.

There are dozens of apps out there for making everything from simple cartoons to professional animation, with price tags ranging from free to, well, not, ahem, free. In this post, I'm going to focus on free apps that are easy enough for children ages 6 and up to use, but offer enough of a fun factor for older kids (and parents) to enjoy and that require little or no drawing skill.

Toontastic by Launchpad Toys. 
FREE app. Additional character sets $0.99 to $1.99.
All Access for $9.99.

This was my first find, and it remains my favorite. Toontastic works like a puppet show. Pick your background and characters, place them in the scene and record. You can move the puppets around and record your voice. The app lets you resize the individual characters, change their colors and move specific limbs, if you like. You can even draw your own backgrounds and characters if you prefer, using the simple paint program provided. Once you've recorded a scene you can add background music as well. String together as many 1-minute scenes as you like to create your movie.

The app comes with a several backgrounds, characters and props from several different themes that you can mix and match. You can add additional sets for between $0.99 and $1.99. There are presently over 30 sets, each with a background and selection of 2-3 characters and assorted props. Themes include fairy tales, pirates, historical figures, space and rock and roll. For $9.99 you get complete access to all current and future sets.

So why is this app my favorite? It hits a nice balance between being simple enough for my 8-year-old to use it completely independently, while offering enough customization for older users. I also LOVE that when you go to create your video, it explains the basic parts of a story and helps the user lay out a story arc. This is great for children as an educational tool. (Toontastic has a free guide for parents and educators interested in use the app for lesson planning.) Lastly, as a parent, I get notification when my child wants to publish a video to the product's ToonTube, and let's me approve it. Since my kids are still young, I appreciate knowing what they're creating and sharing. That said, uploading to the website was very easy to do, and the notification email provides a simple link to share with family and friends.

On the downside, I will say that sometimes the movement of characters "jams" while recording, and it can be difficult to move arms and legs. I also had trouble orienting the characters to match the backgrounds, and getting the characters to turn as I wanted. There is certainly a learning curve to get the best out of the product, but my kids didn't seem to mind that their cartoons weren't "perfect." And, honestly, neither did I. Toontastic was a win for function and price.

Puppet Pals HD by Polished Play, LLC.
FREE app. Additional character packs $0.99, or Director's Pass for $2.99.

Puppet pals is similar to the above Toontastic, but is definitely meant for an older audience, as it includes political characters and talk show hosts as characters, and the graphics are more gritty and mature. Like Tonntastic, you pick your background (all photographic), add your characters and then record to animate and add voiceovers. Rather than recording short scenes and putting them together, Puppet Pals allows for one long shoot. The app exports to the Camera Roll on the iPad, and from there you can upload it to various online locations, like YouTube.

I did like that it was easier to flip the characters in Puppet Pals, using a simple double tap. And the motion was smoother than in Toontastic. You could also resize characters, and even leave them off the background, pulling them in and taking them off at will. But you couldn't move the limbs or the characters, or change them in any way. You can't add music later within the app, which is a bit of a bummer. You also only have access to one pack of characters, the Fairy Tale pack, with the free app, so there isn't much variety.

Puppet Pals does have one advantage over Toontastic: you can take your own pictures, using the iPad camera, to use as backgrounds. You can even take pictures of people, pets, etc. and use them as characters. (The app allows you to cut our character out from the background.) However, you can only use those features if you pay $2.99 for the Director's Pass version of the program. I could see that as being a really fun feature, and the price point isn't very high.

The pass also gives you access to all the additional character packs, both present and future. Packs, individually available for $0.99 each, include 5 to 7 characters and a background. Themes include monsters, pirates, political and pop-culture, zombie and wild west. Though Puppet Pals is available for free, the Director's Pass holds the majority of the fun.

Sock Puppets by Smith Micro Software, Inc.
FREE app. Additional content from $0.99 to $4.99.

This app is the simplest of the bunch. With Sock Puppet, you set up your background, pick you puppets, pick your props and scenery, then hit record. You tap on the puppet you want to speak for and when you talk, the app automatically lip-syncs the puppet to your words. Very cool! You can record up to 30 seconds, then the app "scrubs" your voice to make it more cartoon-like. Both photorealistic and animated elements are included, though only some props can be moved during recording. You can resize your puppets too.

The app comes with 6 puppets and 7 backgrounds. In the store, you can buy additional puppets for $1.99. You can also buy upgrades like additional recording time ($0.99 for 90 seconds) or the ability to import your own background ($0.99). Halloween and Alien packs with additional characters, backgrounds, props and scenery are $0.99 each. A VIP Content Pass is $4.99 and inludes all available content and provides as new releases for free.

Of those I cover, this app would be the easiest and most amusing for a younger child. All you need to do is make sure you're speaking into the mic. It also disguises your voice very well, so you don't need to worry about sounding too different for each character. The app takes care of that. It's pretty easy to upload online as well, directly to YouTube or Facebook. Sock Puppets is the quickest to learn and provides immediate gratification.

I may be no artist, but even I had a lot of fun making my own short cartoons. With these free apps you can let your child's imagine fly. And all of them would be excellent for teaching basic storytelling as well. Have fun!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

STEM Expo: Designing Fun

For those that might be interested, I've posted my presentation from the 2012 NSTA STEM Expo. You can enjoy a slide show below.

Key points: Discover what YOU find exciting and fun about an activity, then pass that on to the students. Look for the "ah ha" moment and capitalize on it. Empower students to lead the class and make decisions. Teach innovation, work cooperatively, and learn to love "failure."

I was also asked where I got my ideas. So, I thought I'd share some links.
So I hope this gives you some fun ideas to get you going! 

Making Do: A Toy Review

I recently returned from the National Science Teacher's Association STEM Expo in Atlantic City. Of course, one of the best parts of any convention is the exhibitor's room. Aisles and aisles of fun new products, services, computer programs and books to buy. And swag. Never forget swag.

One item I picked up was a tube of Makedo. It's a "reusable system for creating things from stuff around you." Basically there are these plastic blue "pins" and "clips" that easily join together to connect paper, cardboard, foamboard, fabric, whatever. If you want to disconnect those pieces, you squeeze the clip and take it apart. Easy peasy. There are also joints that you can use to make angles and moving parts. The kit came with a safe saw and punch tool, to help prepare cardboard for being attached.

My interest is in having a simple, reusable system that the kids in my classes could use to build, basically anything. Which meant it was time for my product-testing daughters to give it a whirl.

We dragged out an old pizza box and some paper towel tubes and set to work. I can say that the pins and clips were easy to use. Even Gwen (6 years old) could use them. same goes for the hinges. Both girls had trouble with the safe saw. I think it likely works better for thicker corrugated cardboard than we had. The punch was also tough for them to use. Again this may be a materials issue. In the end, we found a pair of scissors and a standard hole punch were effective.

I didn't show the girls the product insert or video.I just demonstrated how to use the toy. Given free reign, both girls set to making robots. Gwen worked with me to make a root bird. Caitie (8 years old) went for something more traditional. As we were wrapping up, Gwen swooped about with her bird saying, "Look Mommy, I'm being creative!" (I love kindergartners!) Caitie however was on to planning her next project: a car. But only after she takes some time to decorate her robot so that he can visit school with her in the morning.

(Yeah, I know. I don't usually do product reviews. But I found so many neato things at the Expo, I wanted to share some. I have not received any compensation for this review.)