The Trudge

This weekend I participated in what is probably one of Wyoming’s hardest but least well known outdoor adventure races. They call it a run, but with a name like “The Trudge,” you know you’re not necessarily setting yourself up for a speed record. The race is usually in January or February up in the Vedauwoo Recreation Area around Twin Mountain. The 11 or 22 mile race happens in all conditions, regardless of snow depth, temperature, or wind speed. As long as the road to the starting line is open, the race goes on. The course ,record is measured as the “slowest, fastest time,” and even though it was a beautiful day, this year was a record breaker.

I’m very sore, but glad I can check that race off of life’s bucket list. Training would have been useful, but I’m not sure how I could have trained for 11 miles of postholing through shin to thigh deep snow. Fortunately I found myself mid-pack and the folks up front did a pretty excellent job busting through the 2 inch wind crust and powder for me. I was definitely unprepared for the race, not knowing what footwear or layers I would really need. All the pre-race emails were insistent on being prepared in case the weather takes a turn for the worse and you need to survive! So I packed an extra layer for every part of my body. Reality was it was 30 degrees with no wind and sunny. I also ended up wearing my snowboots because the pictures posted the day before showed some pretty deep stuff. While they were great for keeping snow out, they were also way too heavy to run in and the patches of thin snow where I could have run ended up being little more than a trudge as my tired legs tried to move my heavy boots. My feet ended up soaking wet anyway thanks to sweat and not-quite-tight-enough gaiters. What would have been helpful would have been running shoes lined with plastic bags and a hydration pack rather than a backpack full of a puffy jacket, long underwear, extra thick mittens and hat, thermos, beef jerky, etc. By the end I wanted to strip down and run it in my sports bra but my shoulders were so sore from carrying my pack that I wouldn’t have been able to lift my arms to get my shirt off!  It was so hot that sweat dripped into my sunglasses and fogged them up so I couldn’t even wear those most of the race.  The only useful thing I brought was poles, and thank goodness I had those. I would have ended up face first in knee deep snow countless times without them.

The “aid station” at about mile 4.5 was just a bottle of whiskey at the base of a tree. I was so excited to see that bottle and thought “Why not?” as a took a big sip. The euphoria of being almost halfway through and drinking whiskey mid-race lasted about 30 seconds until I started to feel progressively woozier and then a little nauseous. I had to wash it down with 10 big gulps of water and some electrolyte chomps. At the end of the race I found that most other runners passed up the whiskey this year because of prior experience. Another rookie mistake I made, but not one I regret. That whiskey was good.

Thanks to Bern, my fellow trudger, for this photo at about mile 7 when the mid-race frustration was really starting to kick in. That wasn’t even a deep section of snow.

Wyoming Pictures of the Week

These are actually from a couple weekends ago when I drove down to Laramie, but too pretty to keep from sharing. Something about these wide open spaces really tugs at my heart strings.

Dendrochronology

This summer was very busy with camps and conferences, but I finally had time to relax and do something for fun at work. Since I started a year ago,  I’ve been eyeballing our “dendrochronology” exhibit, which was a sorry pile of wood chunks on a table. When I was in Denver this summer, I visited the Museum of Natural History and saw their version of a tree ring exhibit. It was a beautifully finished slab of 500 year old tree. There was a sign that explained what tree rings were and how they could help explain how climate has changed over time. There were also arrows pointing to years of note like “1776 – Declaration of Independence.” I couldn’t compete with a 500 year old tree, but I thought I could do something similar, so I called up the Casper city arborists and asked if they could help locate a big old tree for me. I was planning on the search taking like a month or two, but two days later I got a call saying, “Hey, Leah. We found you a big tree. See you in 20 minutes.” Fortunately I didn’t have a lot going on and could put some things on hold. It took me about a week of off and on sanding, staining, and sealing the tree chunk, but I think it turned out pretty well and definitely is a far sight more attractive than a pile of wood. The tree is about 60 years old and supposedly was cut down in 2000. I picked something from each decade that I thought our general audience could relate to like, “1973 – First cell phone call made.”

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Stage lighting

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I often have to teach about lights and shadow to elementary school kids, but this summer I was looking to take it to the next level. Using 10mm RGB LEDs, I think I found that level. Other materials include coin cell batteries and binder clips. After talking about light, what causes it, and why we see different colors, this do-it-yourself shadow puppet theater is the best way to put learning to the test. The characters are just cut out of paper and kids can mess around with how close/far they are from the light source, what colors mix to form the light they prefer, and use other pieces of paper to block certain lights. I might even inspire some burgeoning theater tech kids!

Zone Vegas

Lego robotics is one of the most popular programs we offer at the Science Zone, and it goes without saying that our summer Lego camp had twice as many kids in it than we planned (40 total)! With that many kids, it takes a good deal of facilitation, but the theme of the camp “Zone Vegas” lent itself to plenty of project opportunities. The challenge was to build a Las Vegas setup using the Legos provided. We used NXTs, EV3s, and WeDos to motorize some of the equipment. In addition, we needed to build the city around it, so some kids who were less interested in the programming component were able to spend their time building non-motorized components like the hotels and fountains that line the Strip.  Check out the Lego ferris wheel coming together. With a camp this big, it was crucial to have extra hands to help. Altogether we had 6 adults and 2 students as helpers.

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Cardboard Castles

It’s so easy to take cardboard for granted because it is ubiquitous, but the engineering involved in making such a lightweight, economical material to ship fragile things across the globe is mind boggling. This summer, one of the most successful making camps was Cardboard Engineering. After letting kids explore cardboard and build and test their own using paper and glue, the fun really began. The bonus of having the Science Zone share a building with a furniture store is that we have no end of high quality giant sheets of cardboard at our disposal.

For this project, the kids needed little prompting. In fact “Medieval castle” might have been the only hint they got and look at what ensued! The details took a little bit of coaching, like the crenelation on the tops of the walls, and the stone work around the entry, but left to their own devices, the kids ended up with a castle, moat, dungeon, bell tower, and a surrounding village that included stables, a butcher, a church and more. The city took only two afternoons to complete, and with time to kill, the kids decided to make costumes and produce a play about an evil king and queen on a quest for the royal crowns!  The challenge with this camp was that cardboard is difficult to cut with small scissors, and with limited adults, the amount cutting that could be done using more appropriate tools like box knives was limited.

LED Bling

There is something so satisfying about this simple activity. All it takes is some colorful LEDs, 3V coin cell batteries, some arts and craftsy materials like pipe cleaners, construction paper, and googly eyes, and a heap of recyclables/throw-away-ables like egg cartons, straws, plastic cups, etc. The activity itself is very simple and involves little prompting with an introduction to simple circuits and the difference between a diode and a regular light bulb. Then, let the kids loose on dreaming up whatever they choose. If you want to get really fancy, you can explain to the kids about switches (a.k.a. the basic open/close function of a circuit). As is, the LED-battery setup has no switch so it will stay on until it dies or the LED comes loose. With the innovation of the switch, you can turn the light on and off at will. Things I’ve used for switches in the past include clothespins, binder clips, paper clips with a piece of paper, and even just a bent LED lead.

Story Switches

It’s important to remember that making isn’t just for little kids, it’s for big kids too, and it’s especially for teachers who will multiply the effect and get even more kids into the maker movement, increase their problem solving abilities and improve their confidence with tools. This summer I presented a workshop called Tinkering with Electricity at a Wyoming teacher’s conference. Many of the teachers had little experience with electricity and were looking to learn anything that would make their classrooms more exciting and educational. We started with the basic circuit using Christmas lights and batteries, and I showed them a couple projects I had made using easy to find craft supplies or recyclables. I set them loose on one of my favorite projects, the Story Switch, because it is a great, open-ended assessment of student knowledge of series & parallel circuits and open & closed circuits.

The Story Switch is just that – use a simple circuit and switch to tell a story. My example story used one parallel circuit and two light bulbs, and the story went something like this, “Oh no! A great storm came and wiped out the power to a whole town. People are stranded and milk is spoiling in the fridge! If only there was someone who could help save the day!” Enter scene: Science Man! Flying in to illuminate the town with his conductive pants! When Science Man lands on top of the building with his conductive pants, he restores the cities power by completing broken circuits.

Leonardo Da Vinci

By far my favorite camp this summer was in partnership with our local art museum, the Nicolaysen and was themed around the life, art, and inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci. Participants spent the mornings at the art museum learning about some of his masterpieces and putting their own spin on some classics like the Mona Lisa. In the afternoons, campers came to the Science Zone to learn about Da Vinci’s inventions. Each section of camp was themed around one his many skills – Da Vinci the Engineer, Da Vinci the Architect, Da Vinci the Mathematician, Da Vinci the Hydrologist, Da Vinci the Optician, etc.

This camp was fun because in spite of my well planned out themes and connections, the kids took this camp and shaped into their own learning experience. My lesson on 2D to 3D shapes was the greatest success as I challenged the kids to work on teams to create a 3D structure with toothpicks and marshmallows. They passed it to the next group that had to draw it and then that group passed it to the last group that had to recreate the original sculpture from the drawing. We learned about Da Vinci’s talent in rendering real life images on paper that could then be manufactured. As a finale to this lesson, the kids used 3Doodlers to design and create their own 3D images from drawings. This turned out to be a big challenge for some kids and a lot of them ended up using stencils. The bummer of the stencils turned out to be that they are primarily 2D shapes that you make and then stick together into 3D – not really the idea I wanted to get across, but it worked. For kids that really struggled with the 3D pens, I had them use pipecleaners instead to make their creations.

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DIY Computer Games

My second favorite camp this summer to me back in time to my first AmeriCorps year, when I discovered the world of making. At the Science Museum of Minnesota, I learned about the Make movement and was introduced to all kinds of tools and technologies and the Engineering Design process, which turned my world upside down. I fell in love with making without knowing it. As a summer camp instructor in Minnesota, I taught a number of Scratch animation classes that challenged my creativity and logic as a maker and my patience and skills of articulation as an educator. This summer, I taught my first Scratch class in 4 years at the Science Zone in Casper, WY. For five mornings, I facilitated 13 campers in Scratch skills that included moving, teleporting, broadcasting, collecting, and changing.

To start off the camp, I had the kids write down instructions on how to make a PBJ sandwich, then I randomly picked some instructions and made the sandwich following their instructions. I ended up with peanut butter all over my hands and the bread and jelly on the inside and out. This was my analogy for programming – computers don’t know what to do unless you tell them exactly what to do.  We played games and talked about the components. Then I had them storyboard characters and a plot. Twice a day I would give some instructions that they might find useful like how to move characters using arrow keys, how to change screens, how to collect coins, and things like that.  I am amazed by the campers’ ability to pick up so quickly on programming and my own ability to dust off the rust after so many years.

The games are viewable on the Scratch website.