digital technology

Full Steam Ahead: STEAMLabs Maker Classes For Kids

by Samantha on September 8, 2015

How My Daughter Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Programming

 

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“I could program that!”

And with this statement, I knew that my daughter was on her way.

Having completed a summer camp program where she was challenged to learn code and build her own functioning item resulting from her programming, she succeeded  - and then some -  but not without the help of the amazing teachers at STEAMLabs.

Founded by a dad who was inspired by Gever Tulley’s Ted Talk, Andy Forrest, along with Marianne Mader started a “Tinkering Club” summer camp in their garage in 2010. Andy had a background as a web developer and a passion for “tinkering,” and was inspired to start a club that supported kids who had the same interest.

With the starting point of helping the kids learn and discover what interested them, the club launched with a group of “mini-makers” who were supported with their passion to create by Andy and Marianne.

In the spring of 2012, they opened a permanent makerspace location and formed a non-profit organization. Since then, it’s been “full steam ahead” as they provide children with the ability to see their ideas come to life, often in 3D.

When my daughter Miranda was offered the opportunity to check out one of STEAMLab’s summer maker camps, she jumped at the chance.

The program, which focuses on teaching kids Arduino programming language, also teaches eager learners the basis of HTML and CSS code. In addition, the young “Makers” were able to experience 3D printing first-hand, in the creation of their project.

Other areas that the course covers includes:

  • Learning the basics of digital design and fabrication to 3D print robot parts
  • Learning to send messages from Minecraft to the robot created in class
  • The creation of a remote-controlled creature that is activated by programming learned in class
  • Individual and group projects that facilitate learning, creating and collaboration

While my daughter was excited to start the class, she had some trepidation and nervousness about her ability to learn what she thought would be a difficult set of skills. After all, she hadn’t ever done any programming and knew very little about robotic technology, 3D printing and related topics. It was a relief, then, to see her excitement and abilities grow as she mastered new skills, learned and was supported in the positive environment that STEAMLabs provided.

My daughter testing her LED display before completion.

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As part of the Web-Controlled Arduino Robotics Summer Camp, my daughter gained not only the skills to allow her to program at a level that surprised even herself, but also provided her with the confidence to continue her interest in programming, robotics and 3D creation.

Maker culture has seen a rise in eager participants who, with the help of the latest technology (can we say 3D printing, anyone?), are able to see their imagined items come to life. With a lot of forethought, preparation, planning and coding, the young and inspired can realize their most creative inspirations come to life.

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My daughter’s project was a remote-controlled, LED display (her idea) that provided various LED lighting options for the user, via a remote control.

*NOTE* - My daughter calls it a “flashlight” but the name does not do justice to the advanced abilities that the item provides. These include colour waves, programmed flashing and colour patterns and more.

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As part of the creation project, the elements involved:

  • Writing the software/programming on a website
  • Wiring and sautering the various pieces of the item (with assistance)
  • Installation of the hardware, connecting the lights, etc.
  • Assisted with 3D printing of frame

The final product was a success!

Check out these videos that show just a couple of the many light displays that were programmed.

 

How it works: The device is controlled wirelessly, through both a wireless and Arduino chip that controls the LED grid. The program that was written also controls the colours and the brightness of the LED displays to enable them to do a number of things, including making a colour wave across the grid, sequential flashing, changing flashing colours and patterns, etc. The housing of the device frame was completely 3D printed in class - a very cool feature for the eager young students. We all know that having a child complete a project successfully gives them not only a sense of satisfaction, but the confidence to move forward with their next creative idea. This was definitely the case with my daughter’s experience with creating a fully-functioning device from scratch - programming and all.

Girls and Boys

One of the unexpected positive aspects of my daughter’s success in this course was the fact that while the class included more boys than girls, she represented the XX chromosome and then some, not letting the preconceptions of girls’ supposed inabilities to master this stuff get to her.

While the stereotypes about females not excelling in science, math, programming and related topics still persist, they’re diminishing, in large part due to classes such as the ones offered by STEAMLabs. Providing a forum where both girls and boys are supported to achieve their goals, regardless of gender is something that we as parents should support whenever we can. We’ve come a long way in terms of stereotypes and perceptions about the sexes, and while we’ve still got a long way to go, courses such as the one taken by my daughter are making a difference in providing the forum for kids of both genders to excel.

STEAMLabs is continuing to build its curriculum, with a number of new courses underway. Following are just a few that are now available for kids who are eager to see their creative ideas come to life:

If it’s not already clear, I’m a huge fan of STEAMLabs and their support and encouragement of young minds. Check them out at www.steamlabs.ca

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IN THE NEWS: Your Baby Monitor Can Be Hacked

by Samantha on August 1, 2015

Who's listening to your baby? Parents urged to take precautions with monitor technology

 

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Who’s listening to your baby?

Are you safe? Is your baby safe?

The intersection of technology and parenting continues to expand as we increasingly rely on digital tools to make our roles as parents easier. We use tech more than ever to live our daily lives, from watching our babies to entertaining them; from reading to our kids to monitoring them (texting and cell phones). It all seems great, right? Granted, the convenience provided by technology can’t be denied, but there is a dark side to its usage as well.

As hacking becomes more commonplace in our daily lives, the instances of our digital tools being compromised will also increase. We’ve seen a rise of incidents where personal information has been hacked via email, cell phones and cloud accounts, but did anyone really anticipate that baby monitors would be a target too?

It’s scary to think that our most precious assets could be open to being spied on, secretly viewed, spoken to by strangers, or worse.

I recently provided my thoughts on this disturbing trend in an interview on Global News. You can watch the full segment below. There are also some simple tips that parents can follow to make sure that their babies remain safe and secure.

What you do to avoid hacking via baby monitors or similar devices:

1) Educate Yourself - Make sure that you fully understand the technology that you’re using, especially in their children’s rooms.

2) Err on the Side of Caution - When in doubt, don’t. If you have any concerns or misgivings about the technology behind any particular device, don’t use it until you are sure about it’s security, or chose another option altogether.

3) Choose a Secure Password - Don’t make the password for your device too easy. Remember to use a login that is not easily-guessed, that is changed frequently, and that includes a non-sensical string of letters (both upper and lower case) and numbers. For more information on how to choose a secure password, visit this page: How to Create a Secure Password.

4) Limit the Use of Devices - The less amount of devices used to monitor our kids, the less likely hackers will be able to successfully gain access where they don’t belong.

Global News Segment - Baby Monitor Hacked!


 

What other tips do you have for parents who are concerned about being hacked? Leave me your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Pregnancy and Public Transit

by Samantha on June 14, 2015

What has happened to kindness and common courtesy?


Pregnant belly

She was about 8 or 9 months pregnant, belly hanging low, baby about to drop any day. The previous months had clearly taken a toll on her, as her face showed the exhaustion and fatigue required to make a human being. She was physically spent, yet there she stood.

Yes, she was standing. Standing on the 505 streetcar in downtown Toronto, as it abruptly stopped and started in morning rush hour traffic. Had she slept the night before? Unlikely, as anyone who has experienced the final months of pregnancy knows: a good night’s sleep is an ephemeral and fleeting fantasy.

Yet there she stood, while all around her, young, fit and otherwise preoccupied citizens pretended not to see her by burying their heads in their smartphones of choice.

A 20-something man in a crisp suit, clearly headed to his job in the financial sector pretended to sleep, as his eyes closed immediately after viewing the pregnant woman’s swollen belly.

A middle-aged woman played candy crush saga with an intensity and fervour that many of us thought only belonged to a younger generation of gamers, her eyes glued to her retina display screen.

Three teenage girls in private school uniforms giggled amongst themselves, giving nary an eye to the belly that not only protruded into the aisle in front of them, but turgidly languished on the very edges of their personal space. You see, her belly - had it been acknowledged - would have broken up the party, and that wouldn’t have been cool. The latest gossip about that cute guy in class and recap of last night’s TV show was much more important.

This had not been the first time that I had seen such appalling behaviour. Sadly, purposely, ignoring pregnant women while riding public transit has become the norm, not the exception. What has happened to humanity?

I’ve posted many rants and complaints about this on my personal Facebook page and talked to many friends who are mothers themselves. All of them have a similar story to recount about how they have been ignored  while pregnant and riding public transit.

A personal anecdote: during my last and final pregnancy with my twin boys, I could barely walk. I was considered “high-risk” for a few medical reasons which relegated me to bed-rest for most of my pregnancy. On those off days before I was completely immobile, somewhere between my seventh and eighth month of gestation, I needed to use the public transit to get to my doctor’s appointments. Now, let me say that having my third pregnancy and twins, no less, made me huge, much earlier than I would have been, had I been on my first pregnancy. In other words, there was no doubt that I was indeed pregnant.

Yet there I stood.

Their eyes averted, I was ignored, invisible and silently defeated as I struggled to balance so many times on the streetcar, hoping that some kindly person would give me a seat. My elephant-sized ankles continued to swell, my feet ached and my back painfully swayed with each lurch and jolt of the streetcar. Everything hurt, including my feelings.

As the mother of four, and one who has experienced three different pregnancies, I’m sad to say that this experience wasn’t atypical. Sadly, it was the norm, not the exception. And every single woman that I know who has been pregnant has experienced the same. What on earth is going on?

While I don’t profess to have all of the answers, I do believe that our culture of entitlement is a huge factor in this cultural shift. Once upon a time, there was chivalry, then socially accepted norms that included women, about “doing the right thing.” Helping someone who was clearly in need was the norm, not the exception. With the increasing sense of entitlement, exemplified by the “Me Generation” and continuing onward, those in need haven’t had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a fair shake. Whether they’re seniors who are unstable on their feet, the disabled or the aforementioned pregnant woman just looking for a kind soul who will let her have a well-needed seat, the chances of these folks receiving this small kindness grows smaller every day. The lack of focus on others, supported by the technological tools to “zone out” or feign ignorance wherever and whenever possible makes this willful blindness not only possible but probable as well.

Yet, in spite of this trend towards selfishness, I do believe that change is possible. The change starts now with all of us who are raising children with the values that support kindness and compassion. And while we make efforts to effect our childrens’ behaviours in future there are some adults who are in need of an etiquette refresher now.

I am starting a one-woman public awareness campaign as I feel that it needs to be done. As someone who has endured a very difficult twin pregnancy and was on the verge of begging someone to please give me a seat, the time for greater awareness for this reality is long overdue. Clearly, the assumption that everyone riding on the bus/subway/streetcar/[insert transportation mode here] understands that pregnant women should be given a seat is completely wrong. My assumptions - based on the teachings of my parents (thank-you, Mom and Dad) underscored the importance of kindness, but more specifically the need for those of us who are more able, to extend said kindness - and where appropriate, a seat - to those in need. This includes the elderly, the disabled and, of course, pregnant women.

Whenever and wherever you can, please remind those riding the public transit who seem to have forgotten basic courtesy that pregnancy is challenging, difficult and just plain exhausting. If a pregnant woman is standing while able-bodied people are pretending not to see her, be her advocate and ask them to give her a seat. I’ve done it before and have never been told “no,” probably because the shock of being called on their bad behaviour mixed with their embarrassment makes the culprits stand up quicker than one would imagine.

Perhaps making the subject one that is no longer ignored, one where pregnant women don’t have to suffer in silence, will put an end to it once and for all. If anything, making those who are oblivious more aware of their choices and how these choices affect others will affect change, hopefully for the better.

I’ll be tweeting and sharing the hashtag #StandUpForMom and #giveupyourseat on my social media channels to keep the topic top of mind and hope you’re able to share it as well.

Let’s do this.

To read this article on HUFFINGTON POST, click here.

VIDEO: Stand Up For Mom!


What has been your experience with pregnancy and public transit? Tell me about it in the comments section below.

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The simple pleasures of earlier times are now just memories in the age of technology

It was a certainly a different time, a simpler time, devoid of the constant activity that is part and parcel of life in our increasingly rushed, hurried, 24/7 digital age. With the rapid changes to technology and how we communicate with each other, simple, good-old-fashioned fun seems to have been left in the past.

As a child, “having fun” meant something completely different than what it means now. Back then, the  options that are available to kids now did not exist, which in many ways, was a good thing. We weren’t constantly distracted by an endless stream of text messages, online, video or smartphone games, iPads, the Internet and everything else that signifies life in modern times. Sure -  technology is great (my iPad has saved my kids from a meltdown on more than one occasion), but there’s something to be said for the simpler times that are now just a distant memory.

One of the most popular posts on this blog is this one: Is Your Refrigerator Running?” The Lost Art of the Prank Phone Call. The title of the post references one of the favourite pastimes of kids who lived  before the digital age and when Call Display was a thing of the future. The post discusses how technology as a whole has changed the way that kids have fun (as did this post - Can Kids Still Be Entertained?). It’s interesting that the post about making prank phone calls is one of the most visited on this blog, a fact that indicates that more of us than we may imagine are pining for a time when life was simpler and less frantic.

The comparison between then and now - how kids spend their time these days, compared to children in the past - is startling. With things moving so quickly these days, it’s no wonder that many of us wish we could go back to that time when everything wasn’t so fast-paced, and hurried. There’s something to be said for slowing down and throwing caution to the wind.

Unfortunately, however, we can’t turn back time. A return to the simpler lifestyles of days gone by is unlikely, leaving many of us who grew up in a different world to cherish the memories, because that’s all we have left.

Certainly times have changed and technology has advanced our lives in so many positive ways. However, while it’s great that our kids get to to reap the benefits of the Information Age, it’s equally sad that they’ll never know the joy that was provided by some of the simpler pleasures of everyday life. With not a pixel in site, kids survived and actually thrived without the myriad of options that they have now. Life may have been simple but boy, was it fun. I know I’m not the only one who is saddened by the fact that my childhood experiences of having fun will never be replicated by my own kids. After all - they’re used to a much faster pace, more sophisticated toys and gadgets and have a generally shorter attention span as a result. On a more practical level, it would be almost impossible to bring back some of the simple joys of being a kid during this earlier time as children today have greater expectations about how they want to be entertained.

“With not a pixel in site, kids survived and actually thrived without the myriad of options that they have now. Life may have been simple but boy, was it fun.”

Here are 10 childhood loves that my kids will never know:

1) Saturday Morning Cartoons - The days of waking up at the crack of dawn to watch a few hours of TV that only occurred on Saturday mornings are a thing of the past. DVRs, YouTube, downloading and streaming at will has ended this ritual forever.

The Jetsons

Image courtesy of http://www2.warnerbros.com

2) Metal Slides and Concrete Playgrounds - Ouch! They hurt our backsides and the backs of our legs when we were brave enough to slide down them on a hot summer’s day. Now, the plastic is much safer (and more comfortable) but we don’t whiz down quite as fast.

metal slide

Image courtesy of www.dailymail.co.uk

3) The Dewey Decimal System - Searching for information pre-Google was quite the feat, but one that was oh, so rewarding as well. Those small index cards, the beauty of Dewey’s categorization and the process of systematically tracking down that book or piece of information was a thrill in its own strange way.

Library cards

Image courtesy of www.businessinsider.com

4) Movie Anticipation - Waiting months or sometimes years for your favourite movie to be aired on TV made it oh, so much more special. The annual showing of the Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music merited weeks of planning, from the snacks and treats that would be eaten while viewing down to the pyjamas that would be worn, along with the special stuffed toy who would also have a chance at viewing the movie, just this one time. Somehow, that act of waiting for the show that would only be seen once a year made us cherish it so much more.

1950s TV

Image courtesy of www.jerseymomsblog.com

5) Prank Phone Calls - “Is your refrigerator running?” If you know the answer to this question, you too are old enough to feel sad about the fact that these words are rarely uttered to strangers on the other end of the line like they once were.

rotary phone retro

Image courtesy of www.etsystatic.com

6) Test Patterns and the National Anthem - When these two items flashed across your black and white TV, you knew that it was time to hit the hay. There was no choice but to go to sleep, as nothing was on once the anthem was sung and the colourful test pattern (with the annoying, unending “beeeeeeep”) hit the air. No 24/7 TV, satellite, internet, YouTube or downloaded shows for all-night distraction.

Test Pattern 1

Image courtesy of www.wallpapermaven.com

7) Playing Outdoors and Long, Lazy Summers - With the increased fear of strangers and “Helicopter Parenting” becoming the norm, the days of kids wandering aimlessly or playing outside for hours with one’s friends are long gone. “Stranger danger” is the phrase du jour and many parents feel that it’s better to be safe than sorry, resulting in the reality that children are missing out on some of childhood’s greatest experiences.

kids 1970s

www.huffingtonpost.com

8) Sugar, Butter and Non-Organic Food - It’s great to be healthy but, let’s face it: sometimes the things that are the worst for you are the ones that taste the best. Enter sugar, butter and other foods that have been deemed unhealthy in recent times. Not too long ago, children (and adults, let’s face it) savoured the creamy richness of butter on bread, sugar in cereal and fruit that was not deemed “organically-grown, guaranteed.” It’s hard to believe, but people survived after ingesting food that is now considered unhealthy, sadly.

Tang mix

Image courtesy of www.cbsnews.com

9) Seatbelt and Carseat-Free Car Rides - Bette Davis may have warned us to “fasten our seat belts” but the act of being safe, not sorry, didn’t occur very frequently not too long ago. And baby car seats? Fuggedaboutit. (Fun Fact: The back of the station wagon was always the best place to be, preferably lying down, no seat belts in sight!).

1970s station wagon kids

Image courtesy of www.yummymummyclub.ca

Fasten Your Seat Belts - Bette Davis

10) Board Games and Kids’ Activities - Before Google, smartphones and the Internet took over our lives, kids found more creative ways to have fun. An exciting round of Monopoly with the family or more independent creativity via games such as Spirograph can’t be replicated. Sure, we have the updated versions of these favourites but somehow they’re just not the same. After all - the risk of poking yourself with the pins that came with the Spirograph set was half the fun.

70b-toys-spirographImage courtesy of http://motleynews.net

 What things from your childhood do you miss? If you could let your child experience one thing from your childhood that they have never done, or could never do, what would it be? Tell me about it in the comments section below.

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The "Kylie Jenner Challenge" highlights the worst insecurities in tweens and teens

2014 American Music Awards - Arrivals

Have you heard of the #KylieJennerChallenge?

It’s a hashtag that’s become the call to action for young women who want to emulate the full-lipped look of the reality TV star.

One of the famous sisters on “Keeping up With the Kardashians” and the younger sister of Kim, Kylie has become admired for her full lips and fashion sense; is it any surprise that tween and teen girls want to emulate her?

Perhaps not, however the degree to which they want to be more like their idol is troubling, at best.

In an effort to emulate the young TV star, teens have responded to the “Kylie Jenner Challenge” call to action that involves “participants placing their mouth over the opening of a cup, jar or other narrow vessel and sucking in until the air vacuum causes their lips to swell up.”(Daily Mail) The desired result is the pouty look that their young celebrity idol sports, seemingly without such painful effort.

Kylie Jenner and young girls who have tried to emulate her look

kylie jenner examples

While it would be easy to write off such silly behaviour as harmless tween/teen antics, the reality is that this type of body mutilation in the quest for “beauty” is anything but.

The physical pain and frequent injury that results from the #KylieJennerChallenge are the least of these kids’ problems. Rather, as parents, we must look at the root causes of why kids feel the need to emulate their idols to such a painful degree.

So what is really going on here? Why are young girls risking physical harm in the unrealistic quest to look like a celebrity who has the means and ability to look “just so” without pain or discomfort?

Here are some of the reasons for this disturbing trend:

1) Celebrity Culture

We live in a society that is dominated by celebrity culture. Add to this fact our kids’ ability to access the latest information, gossip and trends related to their favourite stars and you’ve got the recipe for a beauty disaster - and then some. The digital age, including kids’ love of social media, smartphones and the latest updates about the celebrity of the day adds to the desire to emulate what they are seeing. The famous have also been sucked into the digital vortex, with many stars using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other channels to connect with their fans. While this may be a great marketing tool and publicity generator for the celebrity, the focus on appearance, as well as an unrealistic standard of beauty is resulting in the damaged self-esteem of vulnerable kids.

2) Insecurity and Diminished Sense of Self

Perhaps spurred on by the constant feed of information about Hollywood beauties and otherwise, is it any wonder that impressionable tweens and teens - girls in particular - feel insecure about their looks and bodies? In the age of Photoshop, Instagram and unrealistically “ideal” bodies, it’s difficult for the average tween, who is often already sensitive about their appearance, to maintain a positive self-image. Our celebrity culture doesn’t help, highlighting the “perfect” and largely unattainable body types of the rich and famous, making young fans who are already vulnerable even more insecure than they already may be.

3) Unrealistic Expectations of Beauty

It should be no surprise that insecurity and diminished body image exist in this age of “perfect” beauties, photoshop and plastic surgery. With images of celebrities being digitally altered before they are shared online and on social media, is it any wonder that our kids have a skewed sense of how real people look? Post-baby bodies that showcase washboard stomachs and curvaceous figures that echo shapes rarely found in reality feed into young girls’ doubts about themselves and perpetuate an unrealistic standard of beauty.

Tweens and teens idolizing celebrities is nothing new, but the standards of “perfection,” made possible through technological and medical manipulation most certainly are. With the bar being raised higher and higher daily, there appears to be little hope for the average young person, insecurities and all, to ever reach the pinnacle of what they see to be the norm.

As parents, we have an obligation to counter the messages and images that our children are bombarded with, particularly now. If we don’t put a stop to it, we’re destined to have a whole generation that is not only insecure, but psychologically scarred as well. Instances of eating disorders, younger and younger children going under the knife in the name of beauty and worse will become more prevalent if this celebrity trend continues.

For parents who are concerned about the emphasis on looks and unrealistic expectations conveyed through celebrity culture, here are some tips on how to help your tween/teen:

  • Discuss their fears and insecurities - Talking to your child about how they feel about themselves and countering negative or incorrect perceptions that they may have about their appearance can help them to put things in perspective
  • Show them the “real deal” - The reality of how using Photoshop, plastic surgery and other methods of altering appearances should be shown to teens who are emulating the looks of their favourite celebrities
  • Encourage their interests - Self-esteem is often increased through success and activities; help your child refocus on an interest or skill that will support their feelings of self-worth. These could include sports/athletics, reading, art, music, cooking or more
  • Focus on their abilities, not their looks - If we as parents focus on our or others’ looks, so will our children. Support and encourage their abilities and what they do, downplay the importance of appearance and how they look
  • Give praise and support - A positive word of encouragement and praise for a job well done can go a long way - especially for a tween or teen who is struggling with their self-esteem
  • Encourage independence and decision-making - There’s nothing like confidence in one’s abilities to make one feel better about themselves. Support your child’s steps towards self-reliance and good judgement
  • Do unto others - A great way of taking the focus off of oneself is to give back to others. Encourage your child to volunteer and their feelings of self-worth will increase considerably, guaranteed.

How do you feel about the #KylieJennerChallenge and the focus on celebrity appearances in general? What additional tips would you give to parents who are struggling to help their children increase their self esteem? Leave me your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

To read this article on HUFFINGTON POST, click here

VIDEO: Under Pressure

Image courtesy of www.instyle.com

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CBC Radio Interview: Kids and Email

September 4, 2014

Should parents allow their children to have email and online accounts? Does your child have an email account? Why or why not? This is a question that I addressed on CBC Radio’s Ontario Morning program about kids and online access. Following a discussion on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning show on a similar topic, I delved […]

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Can Kids Still Be Entertained?

May 10, 2014

How do you entertain the kid who has seen and done everything? It’s a tough question but a real concern for parents these days. The idea of “kids’ entertainment” takes on a whole new perspective in the digital age. For those who have grown up in an age of video games, iPads and Google, the […]

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Are “Girl Geeks” Cool?

April 22, 2014

Back when I was a kid, it wasn’t cool to be uncool.  Back then, the tech revolution wasn’t in it’s infancy; it hadn’t even begun. To be called a “Nerd” was to elicit scorn and its accompanying exclusion. You see, the “cool” kids had no time for those who were more interested in pocket protectors, […]

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An Ode to Saturday Morning Cartoons

March 15, 2014

A recent Saturday morning found me waking up to the sound of my kids’ feet scurrying down the stairs. Ahh….weekends. No school or daycare, no deadlines for getting out the door, no stressed-out parent yelling about packing lunches and backpacks. Saturday mornings are what kids live for, what I used to live for when I […]

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“Strike a Pose” - The Selfie Generation Battle Cry

February 13, 2014

“Strike a pose.” Remember that edict that Madonna pronounced to us so many lifetimes ago? In the song “Vogue,” she challenged us to go big or go home. “Strike a pose” was the battle cry for some heavy-duty showing off, if that’s what you want to call it. “Voguing” was the rage and narcissistic vanity […]

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