Education, Homeschool, Science/Math

Exploring e-Learning Options

I’m always interested in exploring technology and how it can be used at home and in the classroom as a learning tool. As I’ve written in the past, I’m a big fan of the online Starfall games for helping preschoolers learn phonics and basic math skills. We’ve also had great success with free PBS Kids Lab games, which focus on math, reading and science featuring some of my children’s favorite characters like Sid the Science Kid and Curious George. As an instructor for the University of Phoenix, I’ve used computer-based marketing simulations with my students to help them visualize how marketing changes they initiate affect how customers perceive the product. Recently, my high-school friend Abby introduced me to two, more-focused e-Learning tools: ExploreLearning’s Gizmos and Reflex Math, and I’ve been playing with both through the company’s free trial.

Reflex Math has one specific purpose: to improve math fluency, in other words how quickly children can answer basic math facts. Before computers we did this with flash cards, timed worksheets or, one of my major memories, reciting times tables everywhere I went. Reflex Math has turned this practice into a series of games that hold children’s attention and motivate them. Students first create their own avatar and journey to an island to explore several math games. As they solve facts and earn coins, they can buy things for their avatar at the store.

I tested out an Egyptian-themed facts game where I “shot” serpents each time I answered a problem. I also solved a picture puzzle, earning pieces for each problem I mastered. I later chose the ninja game and climbed higher and higher each time I typed in a correct fact. For early elementary students, this game-based method of practice is far superior to flash cards, etc. I’d rather shoot a serpent or be a ninja any day. And for $35 for student for home users, the price is right.

The company’s other product, Gizmos, is a series of science and math simulations geared for grades 3 and up. I focused my attention on the science Gizmos, which allow you to conduct “hands-on” investigations in a classroom or home environment where you may not have expensive lab equipment. Gizmos also has a time advantage. Many of the experiments I preformed would have taken days or weeks in a traditional lab, whereas I was able to conduct them in just a few minutes on the computer.

Gizmos simulations run the gamut, from biology to astronomy and physics. I studied genetics by breeding mice, for example (a high-school simulation). I experimented with the effects of sun, food and water on the growth of different plants, carefully controlling for each variable. And, I learned about the phases of the moon by viewing a simulation that showed the Earth’s rotation and the Moon’s orbit around the Earth. For each Gizmo, ExploreLearning provides a student exploration sheet, which walks the student through the simulation, helping her to explore all its aspects. They also include a teacher guide, vocabulary sheet and an assessment.

Should Gizmos replace the science lab? I hope not. Getting your hands dirty, being forced to slow down, think and observe are all irreplaceable benefits of actually doing science. These are the moments I remember from middle and high-school science. With that said, schools and home school environments often don’t have the resources, time or ability to breed mice or equip boats with sonar to explore the oceans. In these instances, the Gizmos simulations stimulate inquiry and help learning come alive. For the homeschool market, Gizmos is $59 for first time buyers then $99 upon renewal if purchased through the Homeschool Buyers Co-op.

Education, Homeschool, Science/Math

PBS KIDS launches 40 new math games

I’ve been reading Lisa Guernsey’s book, Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five (Basic Books, 2007). Her key TV and game usage advice is that parents must be aware of the content (what you let them watch/play), context (how and how much you use media) and your child.

The boys don’t typically play a lot of computer games, but I’m a huge fan of Starfall. I swear Starfall is how Cooper taught himself to read. With that in mind, I read with delight the news that  PBS KIDS now boasts more than 40 new math games on its PBS KIDS Lab site ( These games are absolutely free and challenge preschool and early elementary children to learn math concepts with their favorite characters. Many of the games are designed for children as young as age three, so I thought I’d let Cooper and Finley try them out today.

You can help Dinosaur Train’s Buddy find and sort gemstones of different shapes and sizes. Go apple picking with Curious George to learn number recognition. Or help George count backwards to make his rocket blast off. Most games eliminate the need to click and drag, relying on clicking only, which makes the games easier for little hands.

The PBS KIDS Lab is not limited to math games. Children can help Gerald from Sid the Science Kid match objects to the climate in which they belong. Or, they can bake a cake for a celebration with Super Why?, forcing them to sound out and spell words along the way.

The boys were delighted with the new games. The 3 to 5-year-old games were a little too easy for Cooper, but he enjoyed them nonetheless. Finley enjoyed the games targeted to the preschool age group as well. Both boys were thrilled when their efforts resulted in a print-out prize (a coloring and cutting sheet), which they eagerly cut and decorated.

The site also includes a number of ideas for activities you can do at home to reinforce concepts. For example, have your child help you set the table and count out the napkins or forks. Or build a house for a favorite toy character to learn concepts like bigger and smaller. Home-based activities include supplies lists, complete instructions, as well as suggestions for books appropriate to the theme.

One final note: If you have a child in middle school through the college years, PBS KIDS is participating in the 2012 STEM Video Game Challenge. The challenge provides cash prizes to kids who can develop new math-based games for children ages four through eight. Here’s the link: