If you give a mommy a data set

Too bad they don’t have this T-shirt in kid sizes, because today science just got real here.

If you give a kid a car, he’s gonna race it down the slide.

This morning we started sliding Matchbox cars down our outdoor slide. It didn’t take long for us to start racing them, and comparing which one went farthest.

And if he slides cars down the slide, he’ll want to measure how far they go.

Naturally (at least, for us) it wasn’t long before we pulled out our 100′ tape measure and started actually measuring how far the cars went, compared to each other. Benji quickly learned how to read the tape measure, and it wasn’t long before he accurately reported the distances himself.

And if he measures how far they’re going, mommy will want to write it down.

Of course, we then started recording the distances each car went…

And finally, 57 cars later, we had a full data set. (Although, in reviewing it, I suspect we may have done one car twice. Noooo!) I should mention that this took a long time, but our interest never wavered. We even took an hour-long break to do errands, but immediately resumed when we got back home.

And if you give a mommy a data set, she’s going to turn it into a bar graph.

This step tested Benji’s patience, since I had to measure and draw little lines very meticulously, and I had to uniquely number each car’s data. I could’ve done it in Excel, but I felt like seeing me graph it by hand would help him understand the process better.



By the time I was 10 cars into drawing the graph, Benji was learning how to read the graph. By the time I reached Car 30, he was getting pretty good, and easily understood the longer line = car went farther. He also immediately, without my telling him, figured out that the two dots right on the X-axis were the two bulldozers that didn’t even get off the slide.

Unfortunately, lacking graph paper the size of butcher paper, I had to keep the Y-axis increments to every 3″. That made it tough for him unless the bar actually touched a Y-axis line, but he’s getting the concept of reading the graph as “it’s close to X feet.” This is tough since he’s the kid who, when told “It’s almost 6:00,” will retort, “No, it’s 5:58.”

Next up: Plotting the data in Excel and seeing if we have a normal distribution. Also, I want to borrow a fairly delicate scale and weigh each vehicle to see if weight correlated with distance traveled. Having observed all these vehicles, however, I noticed that the very farthest distance — 9’1″! — actually involved the car bouncing perhaps a dozen times after hitting the ground the first time. We measured where each vehicle came to rest, not where it first struck. For the farthest-traveling vehicles, the final stop spot usually involved at least a couple extra feet of bounces, so while a heavier vehicle might come off the slide first, it didn’t always end up landing farthest away.

This is all normal summertime activity, right?

Did I mention planets?

First a silly story. Benji and Ian have been looking at Wikipedia entries for bodies in the Solar System. While doing this, they encountered the term trans-Neptunian objects, which Ian explained and Benji understood as “anything out past Neptune.”

Later, we learned that there’s a new dwarf planet out in the Kuiper Belt (currently euphoneously named 2015RR245), and Benji’s comment was classic: “OH! Daddy! This must be a trans-Neptunian object!” 

After that, most of our morning was devoted to planets.

When coloring planets, we have had to break out reference guides to make sure to use the correct colors.

Benji’s pen-opening technique results in ink all over his face. Good thing it’s washable.
Team effort Solar System: I drew the planets (not real taxing) and Benji colored them. He picked the colors, too, with some discussion and consultation of his big planet book. He enjoyed making the far-away dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt objects all silly colors, since we don’t have good pictures to guide us. 

Later in the morning, we also made two sets of proportional planets with sidewalk chalk.

The sun is the arc to the left, while you can barely make out Pluto to the far right on the sidewalk. Distances definitely not to scale.

One, in the driveway, assumed the sun was 15 feet in diameter, and all the planets went from there. Pluto was, as expected, a speck. This really bothered Benji, who wanted to color them in. But most were too small to color.

So I made a bigger version in the street, where Mercury is 12″ in diameter. For the record, that made Jupiter 30′ in diameter and Saturn 24′. The sun was so big I just drew a straight line across the street to start.

I used our 100′ tape measure as a compass to make those big circles. When I finished Jupiter, Benji tab over and exclaimed, “Holy moly, that is big!” So perhaps we have a slightly better understanding of planet sizes relative to each other now.

The Solar System: A Preschooler’s Description

This morning, using a book about planets as a tool, I interviewed Benji about the Solar System. He has been particularly interested in planets for quite a while, so he’s learned more than your average preschooler about this (although how much he really understands is a matter of some uncertainty).

Me [Pointing to the Moon]: What’s this?
Benji: That’s the Moon.
Me: Is it a planet?
Benji: No, it a moon, it spins around the Earth [he spins himself, presumably to represent the Earth, with his hand twirling as the moon to demonstrate]
Me: Oh. What makes Earth a planet, then?
Benji: Moons go around planets [more spinning], planets go around moons.
Me: Planets go around moons? [Dang, we were doing so well!] Don’t planets go around the Sun?
Benji: Oh, yeah! Planets go around the Sun.
Me: What about the Sun? Is the Sun a planet?
Benji: No, the Sun is a big hot thing in the middle, that the planets go around. See, the yellow is hot and the blue is cold [indicates the picture on the page, where the Sun is shown on the left-hand side with a yellowish glow extending through the orbit of Mercury towards Venus, and then it fades into pale blue and then into dark indigo out around Pluto on the far right side]. This side of Mercury [towards the sun] is hot. This side cold. Venus and Mercury have no moons. Mercury too hot. Venus, the atmosphere catch any moons [?!]

Then, with no additional prompting, he added: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars all ROCK. THESE big planets, Jupiter and Saturn, GAS GIANTS. No rock, they all gas. These two is Uranus and Neptune, they ICE GIANTS, they have place to land [uses a tripod of fingers to indicate a space ship landing]. Uranus tipped over, Neptune reeeeeally far away and cold.
Me: Why is Uranus tipped over?
Benji: [long pause] I no know.
Me: Nobody knows, so that’s OK. If gas giants are all gas, are ice giants all ice?
Benji: Yes. [oops, some confusion about the composition of the ice giants!]
Me: That’s a lot of ice.
Benji: And Pluto have some little chunks of blue ice on it too.
Me: Do planets do anything for us?
Benji: One planet, Earth! It do lots for us.

That’s as far as our interview got, although Benji would willingly have kept discussing planets and the Solar System in great detail. Pretty fun stuff.

Benji in the Human Body

We have been reading Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body , and playing some at being chased by white blood cells. This morning Benji took it to another level and decided we should make a model of the human body.

Now, granted, this does look like a pile of pillows, but Benji’s model actually has:
– a brain (the lambskin),
– a heart (brown square pillow),
– lungs (yellow square pillows),
– oxygenated blood (red blanket) and deoxygenated blood (blue blanket)
– a stomach with green food in it (brown towel), and
– miscellaneous internal organs (other pillows)



We did decide to gloss over excretion and what happens to food waste. Some things we really don’t need to act out.

Sometimes I worry that our kid is getting too much science. But then I think, you can’t have too much science!

I Wonder…

…if there’s a difference in deodorant efficacy between shaved and unshaved armpits. I could see it going either way, although I lean towards the theory that shaved + deodorant is perhaps slightly more effective. Why?

Less stinky because fewer hairs for sweat and stink bacteria to adhere to
Less stinky because deodorant goes directly onto skin
More stinky because less area for deodorant to stick

Less stinky because more area for deodorant to stick (all those hairs)
More stinky because hair insulates skin from getting directly deodorized
More stinky because more hairs to sweat and stink bacteria to adhere to

It wouldn’t be very difficult to test this question, but you would need an objective stink-o-meter to measure armpit stinkiness, since (a) you couldn’t ask evaluators to sniff lots of armpits; and (b) human evaluators would be too subjective, anyway. Sadly, I somehow doubt this question will ever be seriously researched, so it’s likely to remain forever in the realm of speculation. Which, come to think of it, may be for the best.

Maybe I’d better stick to posting pictures of us out on our walk on this freezing but gorgeous morning:

"Whatever it is you want me to do, I don't want to!"

More Baby Science

This Tuesday, Benji got his first ever cold. On the one hand, I’m pretty amazed we made it 14 months without getting a cold before, especially since we play with other babies pretty often (although nothing like the exposure of a day care). On the other hand, I’m horrified to imagine dealing with six to 10 of these every year, which our caring-for-your-child book says is standard. Standard! Gah! Baths, steamy showers, and vaporizers are all well and good, but snot suckers, saline drops in the nose, and constant Kleenex application elicit vociferous objections. I guess crying will help get more mucus out, and that’s good, right?

Anyway, when it was clear Benji had a cold, I got really sad: Today (Friday) we were scheduled to do another round of Baby Science at the UW’s I-LABS, and I really wanted to do it, but wasn’t sure he’d be healthy enough. Around Benji’s birthday we went to the I-LABS to do a study where the researchers played with him at a table while I held him, and then both of them simultaneously, silently looked at an object off to the side (think of when you see people standing staring at the sky — don’t you want to look up to see what they’re seeing?). They recorded where he looked: Did he look at the object, too? Did he look at me? Did he look elsewhere? Out of three or four times of looking, he followed their gazes once. Apparently that’s pretty normal for 12-month-olds. They’re not real good at gaze-following, whereas 18-month-olds tend to be much better at it. When we did that study, I agreed to have them put Benji on the I-LABS’ list of test subjects, so we’d get contacted for other I-LABS studies.

Well, earlier the I-LABS folks contacted me about doing another study. I arranged to come to the UW today, and happily it worked out that he was well enough to go. The study we did this time involved the researchers putting Benji in an MEG machine, which they use to measure the magnetic signals produced by his brain while they played recordings of words familiar and unfamiliar to him. I’d previously completed a survey rating a long list of words as familiar/unfamiliar, and they made a customized recording for his session. Oh, and we had to wear clothes with no metal at all: No glasses, shoes, or bra with metal clasps for me, no onesie snaps for him. Fortunately, I just discovered a couple regular T-shirts that fit Benji, so we actually had clothes for him to wear.

Before heading in to the awesome instrument room, they set Benji up in a special cap that looks like this:



The cap held electrodes (I think) near his head, but it looked to me like he was an astronaut. The guy is using a light pen to mark where the cap is on Benji’s head so they can know exactly where the sensors/electrodes/whatever were placed. The gal in the blue and black dress is the researcher whose job it was to entertain Benji. Once that was on and Benji was tolerating it, they popped him into the MEG machine. He sat in a pneumatic high chair (!) that they then rose up and positioned within the instrument:

I got one rogue picture before they told me cell phone usage could totally screw up the calibration and to put that darn device away. I hastily did. So… yeah, hopefully the data came out OK!

Anyway, for the next 18 minutes, a speaker played words like “car,” “more,” “bubble,” “bird,” “slipper,” and so forth. When they first said “car,” Benji kicked his legs and laughed… although perhaps the entertainer assistant did something amusing. Because all during that time, the entertainer silently played with toys to entertain Benji, and simultaneously a video of kids’ faces also played on a screen. The entertainer did a great job, and several times Benji laughed or reached for toys. Later a video of baby animals came on, and it’s too bad that didn’t go sooner — I’m pretty sure the puppy would’ve held his attention just fine the entire time. When the puppy came on the screen, Benji started panting like a dog (a trick he learned from his doggy friend Harper, a 1.5-year-old yellow lab). The trick was that if he saw me or the entertainment got out of his field of view, Benji would move his head, which had to stay in the machine. Tricky.

Amazingly, we made it through the entire 18 minutes without disaster, and in fact Benji did so well, the invited us back to do an MRI of his brain for another study. They also asked if we could come back for him to demo wearing the cap for a demo day next week. I said yes to the MRI, even though they want him to sleep in the MRI machine (fat chance! This is a baby who sleeps exclusively in his crib, not even in a car seat; AND it’d ruin our entire day or evening), because that sounded really neat. They correlate the MRI imaging to the data collected today, and use that to figure out what parts of his brain were doing what during today’s study. Cool! I had to say no to the cap-wearing demo because timing wouldn’t work out, alas.

So that’s our baby science. Pretty exciting. And Benji’s now spent more time at the UW than your average 14-month-old. I hope he’ll grow up to love scientific research as much as we do!