Her First Science Fair

Science Fair Project

American public schools in general aren’t that good at teaching math and science.  Actually, I could probably have stopped that sentence with “American public schools in general aren’t that good” and gone to lunch, but it’s a complex topic.  We made the choice years ago to put Laurel in public school, knowing their drawbacks — without really getting into it, we do believe in public education.  You can’t treat it as a black box with a slot labelled “insert child here” that dispenses educated young adults out the bottom, but it’s something you can work with.  And it gives us some time to save up money for private high school when the time comes, if necessary – high school being a significantly different academic and social proposition than elementary school.  On that one, we’re waiting to see.

But, as mentioned, public schools are pretty crappy at math and science — indeed the fact that they’re even considered separate subjects as opposed to fundamental approaches to dealing with the world bothers me.  Many of San Francisco’s public schools are already dealing with severe literacy problems, and their resources are devoted much more to those issues.  Nonetheless, the slightly-unofficial organizations that surround SFUSD have been running monthly STEAM nights at Laurel’s school, and after two months on the ‘A’ part they finally got to the ‘S’ by holding an extremely informal science fair.

Laurel’s class has been learning basic arithmetic and skip-counting (translation for those of us educated in the 70s and 80s: “counting by Ns”).  So we entered a project wherein we built a machine to do those things.  One of the best ways to learn something being to each it to someone else, especially a student of exceptionally low intelligence, something at which computers excel.

In this case, the pupil was a little microcontroller board, with a couple of buttons for addition and subtraction and a display for alphanumeric output.  Laurel provided the pseudocode (or “software story” as we called it, at right in the photo above), we worked together on deciding what inputs to have and what they should do, and I translated her pseudocode into C.  There were a lot of off-spec discussions about what to do, for example when there wasn’t room on the display for the number, whether to wrap back to 0 or stop, whether to support negative values (a concept she only vaguely grasps at his point).  She typed up the simple “how to use” instructions which almost everyone read, and I wrote up a more elaborate “instructions for grownups” section which ended up going mostly unused.

One of our more involved design debates concerned whether to reset the total to 0 when changing the skip value.  Doing so, I argued, would make it more clearly a device for performing skip counting proper.  Laurel disagreed and wanted to keep the outstanding total and start adding/subtracting from there.  We went with her approach.  In the event, the younger kids who checked it out at the science fair were a little confused, but the older ones saw its application as a general-purpose adder/subtracter, and several got quite big smiles on their faces when they figured it out.

All was not sunshine – Laurel, having had a full day of school, then an afternoon of doctor visits and public transit, was fussy and more interested in other people’s exhibits than her own, but we got plenty of folks coming by and at least a few had little “I’d like to do that” lights on in their faces afterward.

Coincidentally, her homework that day involved translating tally marks to plain numerals, something involving skip-counting by fives and then incrementing by ones, so her choice not to reset the total to zero when changing the skip value proved fruitful.  I let her use the machine to do the assignment, and she happily ran the algorithm out loud the whole way through.

The spreadsheet

We told some people we’d share this after we’d picked a name. So here’s the spreadsheet. I’ve scrubbed out a few especially colorful comments, but most of it is intact.

– Devin


We have some names picked out, that after a few weeks of saying them to ourselves now and then we haven’t come to hate the utterance of. I suppose that’s a good sign.

For some reason we decided we wanted to keep our name selection to ourselves until the actual day, though as you’ve seen we’ve shared some of the rejects. Hopefully you won’t mind the suspense. We’ve had a spreadsheet going for this process since around week 12, to which we’ve made occasional trips; lots early on, then long lapses interspersed with anxiety-besotted review, then more lapses. We checked some baby name books out from the library, read through them with the surprising speed possible when you’re rejecting almost everything you see and not trying to memorize. The spreadsheet acquired more columns for commentary, and then for preference scoring, and so forth.

Beth and I have fairly divergent aesthetic tastes, so it’s been a surprise how noncontentious this process has turned out to be. In a state of faint disbelief that we’d gotten through so much of it so readily, I eventually added a couple of scatter plots depicting our affinity distributions:

Essentially, what you see there is the distribution of our individual preferences and a representation of how much or how little we agree on names. A plot whose points fell along an f(x)=x line (that is, diagonally up and to the right) would signify total agreement. What we in fact see is that we agree, in a very general sort of way, on girls’ names. On boys’ names, we’re closer to a f(x)=-x orientation, a perfect version of which would signal perfect disagreement. Fortunately, there are some outliers in the upper right corners of both plots, and there’s a decent chance we’ll end up using one of them.

Subjectively, we found that on the arbitrary scoring range we used, I had a higher liking for girls’ names, and Beth rated boys’ names higher on the average. I suppose that speaks to our gender psychology a bit. That offset isn’t really visible in the plots because they’re normalized for the upper end of the range.

We might be a bit less rigorous about middle names, though.

– Devin

It’s what’s important

Sometime within the last week or two, the Seed allegedly acquired some degree of hearing. I say some degree, because this is just the approximate point when babies start reacting to noises in ways that can be detected. Maybe they had awareness without response previously, it’s hard(er) to tell. However, the ear structures won’t be entirely developed for another couple of months, so it’s somewhat questionable how ready the Seed is to hear my fatherly pronouncements. As you can imagine, I’m eager to extend as much as possible the duration of the period between when my offspring can first hear my voice and the moment when they decide everything I say is bullshit. But the uncertainty over to what extent I’m audible, much less intelligible, leaves me with a modicum of trepidation over the affair. Granted, I’ve spent a significant chunk of my professional life talking to people whose ear structures evidently hadn’t entirely developed either, but at least I knew that going in, so I knew where I stood.

So apart from the occasional moment of passing a bit of clever rhetoric at Beth’s midsection, I’m currently sticking a bit more towards communicating via patting her belly. That’s probably a better medium anyway for communicating the urgent survival skills it will need for its future, namely: factorization, divisibility, and prime numbers. It goes a bit like this:

Devin’s hand: patpat
Devin’s hand: patpatpat
Devin’s hand: patpatpatpatpat
Devin’s hand: patpatpatpatpatpatpat
Devin’s hand: patpatpatpatpatpatpatpatpatpatpat


Devin’s hand: patpatpatpatpatpatpatpat
Devin’s hand: patpatpatpat (pause) patpat


Devin’s hand: patpat (pause) patpatpatpatpatpatpatpat
Devin’s hand: patpatpatpatpatatpatpatpatpatpat-
Beth: Ow, stop that.

We’ve also had the Baby Starts Moving week (moving in a way Beth can feel, I mean). There was a bit last week, but it’s been the big deal of this one. After dinner this evening Beth was reporting that if she poked herself in the proper spot, the baby would wiggle. It was difficult to reproduce, though. I tried poking out prime numbers, of course:

Devin: pokepoke
Devin: pokepoke-
Beth: Ow. Not like that, like this (demonstrating)
Devin (like that): poke-
Beth: Ow.
Devin (differently): pokepokepoke
Beth: Ow, stop that.

The sequence was blown by that point, and even if the Seed had been inclined to wiggle out its answer I don’t know how I could have done the grading. The conceptual range is limited, too; I’m not sure how I’m going to communicate the concept of zero through a uterine wall.

– Devin