Toddlers with Lasers

My only real New Year’s resolution this year: restart the blog and post by the end of January. Well, it’s Groundhog’s Day. Better late than never?

I am back at work these days doing some engineering work for a local company, which is one of the reasons that I have let the blog slide, though I’ve missed this. A little while ago, my daughter wanted to pretend that one of her Little People was me and was driving around in a car, stopping to get gas and going to work. This is apparently what I do. She wanted to pretend that the Little Person was at my work so I decided to show her what I do at work.

Okay, most of what I do at work involves staring at a computer and would be pretty boring for a two year old. But, I do have some educational optics kits that are used to teach students about light so I went out to the garage and brought it in.

The result was amazing. Almost 30 minutes (an eternity to a two year old) of exploration.


The kit consists of a laser source that shoots out 5 laser beams. These represent ‘rays’ of light. The idea is for students to then take some of the pieces of clear plastic that are molded into different shapes and see how the light travels through them. There are positive and negative lenses that bend light toward and away from their centers and blocks of glass for investigating.

Here is an example of a positive lens that my daughter put in the path of the light.

The main concept here is that when light hits something like glass or plastic, some it reflects off and some of it bends and travels through. How much reflects and how much travels through, as well as how much it bends, depends on the material. Mirrors reflect almost all the light, but glass only reflects a little and the rest travels through (making it a good window material!).

Here is a basic artistic view of what happens when the light hits a piece of glass:

If light inside the glass hits the surface with the air at a large enough angle, all the light will be reflected and none of it will be transmitted back into the air. This is called total internal reflection and can be used to make mirrors or trap light in things like fiber optics (that’s what brings my internet to my new house but more on that later).


At one point, my daughter put a prism in the light at just the right angle so that a little traveled through (and bent a lot) and a lot of the light was reflected. She put the prism down and then said, “Whoa mommy!” Whoa, indeed. Total internal reflection is cool.


Optics is cool, but I thought the best part of this experience was her exploration. Unlike my college students, she did not know what she was ‘supposed to do’ and did not care anyway. She tried putting all her toys in the laser beam – most of which did nothing at all but that did not phase her. She would just try something else – plastic Little People (every single one of them), Legos, teddy bears, books, and once she tried a little piece of foam packing material that turned about to be the coolest thing. The light bounced around the little piece of foam and it glowed bright red. She was so happy!

Her wonder gives me so much joy.

If you’re interested in the kit itself, I bought it at Arbor Scientific. You can find them there for $99. It is pretty basic but is a lot cheaper and in many ways just as good as the more expensive educational kits.


Experiential Learning, aka Vacation

My husband and daughter and I went on vacation a couple of weeks ago. It was the first time that our daughter flew with a layover and the first time we traveled where we weren’t just staying with her grandparents. There were a lot of new experiences for her (and us!) on this trip.

My daughter was clearly thrown out of her comfortable schedule and we were worried about how hard this trip was going to be for her. She definitely had a hard time adjusting to sleeping in several new places and was thoroughly annoyed with all the car travel by the time we got home. Otherwise, I was very impressed at how well she adjusted to all the chaos of the trip.

To give you an idea of some of the challenges and new things she experienced:

  • At least 4 hours of airport delays in both directions
  • Travel to four new states and one new country
  • A cat, a puppy and 5 little pigs (actually the pigs weren’t that little)
  • New food
  • Cousins! (They were almost as exciting as the cat and puppy and pigs.)
  • Walks through a major city, a bird sanctuary, a cheese factory and along a river
  • Sleeping in strollers, cars, and a travel crib in two different new houses
  • Eating in new places practically every meal
  • Playing a piano
  • Sitting in the grass and eating beans straight from the stalk
  • 6 airports and 6 different types of airplanes

I was tired on the trip due to less sleep than usual and all the travel and general chaos and I think I was probably paying less attention to my daughter than usual. I was just trying to get through the days and make sure we were getting her food and sleep regularly even though the schedule was different every day.

When we got home, we had a relaxing day with nothing planned (except lots of napping!). With all the chaos gone and my attention firmly on my little girl and her activities, I was amazed to realize that she had learned to wave hello and goodbye, and clap whenever we said ‘Good job.’ She also managed to climb the stairs on her own and stand up for the first time with nothing to pull up on. When did she learn all of that?!

People talk about how important repetition is for children to learn new things and I do believe that that is true and helpful for them. However, I am also realizing that taking them out of their comfortable routine and letting them experience so many new things can also make a huge difference in their learning.

We learn so much from our new experiences. I still cannot believe how much spending 6 months in a foreign country changed my view of the world and my own life. My daughter had very little experience with animals. She does not play with other children all that regularly and her cousins were excited to show her new things and share their experiences. Being in new houses forced to her learn how to get around on new surfaces and gave her new cupboards and furniture to explore. Her world must have gotten so much bigger from just this little trip.

I am going back to teaching part time this fall and this is a good reminder to me how important it is for me to challenge my students with new experiences and get them outside of their comfort zones from time to time. It is important to give them structure to help them learn, but then also to change up that structure with interesting hands-on demonstrations and problem solving. The most learning seems to come from situations where we have the opportunity to apply what we know to new situations and see the world around us with new eyes.

For an infant, whose world is still so small, it is relatively easy to introduce her to new experiences and she has so much to learn that it does not even really matter what these new experiences are – perhaps they will help her learn to communicate better, or move around more efficiently (even on bumpy or slippery floors), and learn more about the outdoors, or develop problem solving skills (like trying to open the container of raisins).

I am excited to be thinking about how to apply these ideas to the narrow range of information that my students need to learn in my class. It will be fun to think of new ways to help them apply that base theoretical knowledge from the book to a range of problems and situations. What types of experiential learning can I use in the classroom? Field trips to the local hospital to see how a variety of medical equipment works (and how much cool physics is involved!) would be fun, but perhaps not practical. But I bet I can set up some exploratory hands on activities to see how electrical circuits and magnets work and how light travels and can be used to do fun things like measuring the width of your hair.

Or maybe we should just skip the semester’s work altogether and go on vacation. That seemed to work for my daughter!

Photograph note: The pictures of the pig above was taken by my husband on our trip in Maine. Thanks to him for letting me use it!

Jingle Cubes

We had some visitors come and stay with us last weekend. My daughter is really wary around strangers, so I was very happy that she handled the visitors so well. She relaxed enough to stop giving them the evil eye and went on to smile and play with them some. At one point, one of our visitors mentioned what a nice set of alphabet blocks she had and I was so confused. My daughter doesn’t have any blocks.

I looked up and responded, “Oh, you mean the jingle cubes.”

My husband and I discussed at one point that normal parents probably don’t refer to their child’s toys by the proper geometrical shapes. But these are clearly cubes:

And these very beautiful jingle cubes (they each have a bell inside them so they jingle when my daughter shakes them) were made for us by a mathematician, so I think we should call them cubes.

Of course, geometry has never been my strong point, so I may have to do some research if I want to continue this trend of calling her toys by their right names.

We definitely have spheres (left below), cubes (above), and cylinders (right below) of many different types. Here are a couple:

And of course, it will be important for my daughter to know that this is a ‘truncated icosahedron’: (Mathematica Website)

 It has 32 faces and is apparently also the shape used for soccer balls. So this seems important for her to know, right?

My daughter does not have a set of blocks yet, but we are hoping to get her a nice set of wooden blocks, maybe for her birthday. I think I may have to just resort to calling them blocks unless some of my mathematician friends can help fill in the empty place in my brain where geometrical shapes should go.

Of course, at some point, I think we should just call a giraffe, a giraffe and not worry about its shape:

For those of you who are physicists out there, you know that geometrical shapes are not really important since we tend to approximate chickens as point particles and cows as spheres. Anything else is too complicated for us.  For those of you who are not physicists and wonder why we care about chickens and cows…well, I am not sure I can explain physics humor, but we think it’s funny. Ah, my poor kid is going to be so embarassed by her mom.

The jingle cubes will always be jingle cubes, though. And they have been a favorite of my daughter’s for a long time. First, they were so big, she needed both hands to grab them and they helped her learn hand coordination. Then, she loved to chew on them (like everything else). Then, her hands grew and her coordination improved so that now she holds one in each hand and shakes them and knocks them together to make music. Maybe soon she will start to stack them, and then (in the distant future) use them to spell words. They really are fantastic, multipurpose jingle cubes.

Just A Mom

Sometimes I feel like just a mom.

My job is the hardest job I’ve ever had. I have to work long hours (24 hours a day sometimes). I have to be a nutritionist. A chef. A clown. A weight lifter. A doctor. A teacher. A house cleaner. A dairy cow. A mind reader. A chauffeur. A musician. An event planner & coordinator. A shopper. A soother of hurts, real and imagined. A nurse. A photographer. And the list will keep growing with her.

So how can I ever feel like just a mom?

Before my daughter was born, I had a full time job that was very intellectually challenging. I liked to be outdoors, go rock climbing, knit small projects, bake cookies, have coffee with friends, go out and drink beer, eat at interesting restaurants, go on dates with my husband, play computer games, and travel around the world.

My identity pre- and post- baby are not separate, of course. My daughter and I already spend time outdoors together and will start hikes soon. Maybe rock climbing next? I should probably wait a few years. I am looking forward to taking my daughter on travels both near and far. My love of knowledge and stories led me to read to her (including some Physics news) from before she could even sit in my lap.

Recently, I’ve tapped into my forgotten musician in my daughter’s music class. While many of the moms smile and mumble or sing quietly, I belt out the songs in my rough, off key voice. My mother played the organ at church and was always so upset that the congregation wouldn’t sing, so you can be sure her children sang every song loudly. Maybe my daughter will learn the joy of singing (in tune or out of tune) from me.

And while I don’t teach my daughter a lot of Physics yet (she is figuring gravity out all on her own), there’s no question that I’m teaching her every moment of the day.

But I still need some space that is mine. People who don’t call me ‘Mommy.’ A part of my brain and a part of my day that is devoted to that person that I used to be. It is those parts of my life that help me to appreciate my daughter’s smiles and giggles, and even her ear piercing squeals, all the more. If I do not have a break, her big wide eyed look when I come in a room seems needy. If I have some time to myself every now and then, I recognize that she’s looking at me like I am the center of her universe and that big smile means that she is happy to see me.

We all need balance, though we each find it in very different ways. I am working on finding mine.