Countdown to blastoff at Maker Faire Austin!

The songwriters are strumming, the fire dancers are flaming, and the robots are . . . gardening? Maker Faire Austin is back, and this year it’s filling the entire Palmer Events Center with amazing demonstrations, performances, and workshops that are the very definition of “family friendly.”

Read on (or scroll down, if you can’t resist) to enter our drawing for a free family pack of Maker Faire Austin passes!

The Maker Faire happens Saturday and Sunday, May 7–8, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. This year more than 200 creative engineers, artists, crafters, and builders from all over Texas will meet up to share their passions. A blacksmith will make swords on site and explain how it’s done. You can paint with LED light on a 30-foot wall, and then watch a robot drumline!

Kami Wilt, the Faire’s producer and chief evangelist, says she is expecting more than 12,000 visitors to the Faire in May. “I’m especially excited that for the first time we have a huge darkened hall as part of the venue. There we’ll have lots of interactive light exhibits. We’re really blowing the roof off the place this year. We’re not a ‘mini’ Faire anymore!”

Kami recommends taking a look at each day’s options on the website and planning so that everyone in the family can spend time doing what they love. “But also leave some time to just wander and explore,” she says. “Don’t over-prepare. You’ll walk in and be swept away by the sea of exciting stuff to see and do.” Families can buy passes for one or both days, which will allow them to go in and out at their own pace.

The best thing about the Maker Faire experience, Kami explains, is that it gives parents and kids a chance to get caught up and involved in the same activities and sense of wonder. “We see whole families intensely engaged—and parents rarely want to sit on the sidelines.”

This video will give you a little preview of what’s in store.

If you’re interested in volunteering to help with the Faire, there are slots available. Your volunteer job comes with a free t-shirt and admission. And if you’re a maker, there’s still time to sign up to show your stuff! The maker application deadline has been extended through April 7.

Please join us to share the maker experience, and set your imagination free.

Lots more information is available on the website. Or you can follow the happenings on Facebook: Maker Faire Austin; Instagram: @makerfaireaustin; and Twitter: @atxmakerfaire.

And here's your chance to win free tickets! We're giving away a family pack that includes two adult passes and two child passes, good for either day of the Faire. Enter our random drawing below, using the method(s) of your choice. And if you are not the lucky winner, you can buy advance tickets right here. Good luck!

UPDATE (4/5/2016): Congratulations to Sara, who won our family passes to Maker Faire Austin! And thanks to everyone who entered. We hope you’ll still be able to make it to the Faire. We can’t wait!

Shelley Sperry, staff writer

Giveaway: Class Dismissed, a provocative new documentary

The Austin homeschooling and unschooling communities have been abuzz this week in anticipation of next week’s screening of “that homeschooling movie,” also known as Class Dismissed. I’m excited to see the film—and to offer Alt Ed Austin readers a chance to win a pair of tickets! Read below about director/producer Jeremy Stuart’s documentary about one California family’s decision to take their kids’ education into their own hands, and find out how to enter our drawing.

The makers of Class Dismissed point out that we live in a time when education is under siege from every angle: overtesting, underfunding, teacher layoffs, crowded classrooms, increasing rates of depression and anxiety among students. Readers of this blog are well aware of these issues, and many are seeking solutions. In response to such grim news, parents in Austin and throughout the country are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the state of public education, and a growing number are choosing to pull their children out of school to seek alternative ways to educate them.

Class Dismissed asks some big questions:

  • What does it mean to be educated in the 21st century?
  • Is it possible to get an education without attending school?
  • Can learning outside of the classroom really provide a nurturing and educationally rich experience in which children can grow and blossom?

According to the filmmakers, Class Dismissed “challenges viewers to take a fresh look at what it means to be educated and offers up a radical new way of thinking about the process of education.” Check out this brief trailer:

The documentary is showing in Austin for one night only: Tuesday, April 7, 6:30pm, at the Galaxy Highland. Buy your tickets here. But first, enter our giveaway below for a pair of free passes! You have several ways to enter, for up to 6 entries per person. The winner of our random drawing will be announced on Sunday, April 5.

Good luck, and check back Sunday morning here on the blog or on Alt Ed Austin’s Twitter or Facebook page to find out the winner. See you on Tuesday at the movies!

UPDATE: Congratulations to our winner, Cynthia J.! And thanks to everyone who entered the drawing. There are still some seats available for the Tuesday screening as of this morning, so I hope to see you there!

Making the invisible visible at the Hill Country Science Mill

We’ve fallen in love with the Hill Country Science Mill, and we think your family will, too. Alt Ed Austin contributor Shelley Sperry recently interviewed the new museum’s founder. Read all about it below, and then scroll down to enter our giveaway to win four passes to the Grand Opening on Valentine’s Day!

Amazing things are happening in a grist-mill-turned-science-museum in Johnson City. At the new Hill Country Science Mill a team of science educators and entrepreneurs is bringing innovative, hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math education to kids of all ages.

The Mill, which opens on Saturday, February 14, will serve students in nearby rural and small-town schools as well as urban students from Austin and San Antonio. All exhibits are bilingual—with explanations in Spanish and English—and all are designed to turn boys and girls into passionate doers and makers.

“We want to see engagement! We believe all kids are born with innate curiosity. They want to explore and do stuff,” says Bonnie Baskin, a scientist-entrepreneur and one of the Science Mill’s founders. Soon after moving to Johnson City, Bonnie was drawn to the rundown nineteenth-century mill that now houses the museum. She knew that the massive structure, silos, and creek could be an ideal setting for the kind of education project she and her husband, neuroscientist Robert Elde, had long dreamed of.  

hcsm_exterior photo 12-27.JPG

“You don’t fall in love with science by reading about it; you fall in love by doing it!” Bonnie and her team believe that middle school is a crucial time for engaging kids in science and math, so many exhibits are designed to connect with middle-schoolers’ devotion to technology and games. Each visitor gets a 3D avatar, or “science buddy” that she or he customizes. All over the Mill, kids check in at kiosks and tablets, and their avatars let them choose favorites and provide new information about the work scientists and engineers do. And then the kids take their avatars home.

“Why should a museum be confined within walls? We want to extend the experience into kids’ lives at home and at school. We want to engage students for the long term—not just for a few hours.” They can access more information by logging into the museum website, and their science buddies will join them to explore favorite topics again and again.

The museum’s grand opening is on Saturday, February 14th. Special activities and musical performances have been scheduled to help kick-off the day. Proceeds from the Grand Opening will benefit the Science Mill's Scholarship Program, which will help defray the admission and transportation costs for field trips and enrollment in science programs and camps for qualified students.

Bonnie finds it hard to choose a favorite exhibit, but one she’s especially proud of is the “cell phone disco.” Inside one of the 40-foot silos, thousands of red LED lights respond to students’ cell phones when they send texts. The interaction between their phones and the lights demonstrates the power of electromagnetic waves.

“It’s such a great example of making the invisible visible, which is just what we want to do at the Science Mill.”

Shelley Sperry

You have three ways to enter our random drawing for a family pack of passes to the Hill Country Science Mill’s Grand Opening on Valentine’s Day. The giveaway ends at midnight on Tuesday; we'll announce the winner on Wednesday morning. Good luck!

UPDATE: Congratulations to the winner of our random drawing, Tammy W.! And thanks to everyone who entered. We hope you’ll make it out to the Science Mill soon, and visit Alt Ed Austin often.

Maker Ed awesomeness at the Austin Mini Maker Faire

Giveaway alert: A family pack of Austin Mini Maker Faire passes is up for grabs, plus free tickets for professional educators and a special discount code for homeschoolers! Read on.

I love the theme of this year’s Austin Mini Maker Faire, as expressed in the beautiful posters designed by Kat Townsend: We are all makers. Even more exciting for me (and the reason Alt Ed Austin is a proud sponsor of AMMF 2014) is its brilliant demonstration of another theme: We are all learners. We are all teachers.

Underlying its well-deserved reputation for outlandish fun in the tech, craft, art, robotics, and sustainability arenas, the heart of Austin’s annual maker extravaganza is education. At a time when our traditional school systems are deep in crisis, the Faire serves as a showcase for learning experiences as they should be: hands-on, interdisciplinary, learner directed, multi-age, naturally engaging, noncompetitive, playful, and focused on using critical thinking skills and imagination to address real-world problems.

With the generous support of our special area sponsor, WonderLab, we have expanded the Maker Ed section of the Faire in a big way and added some extra perks for educators. Here’s what’s in store:

Free admission for professional educators! Just show some proof that you are an educator at check-in. 

Special 20% discount for homeschooling families. Buy your adult and child tickets in advance using this code: AHS20OFF 

Educators’ Lounge. This year we’re giving teachers and other education professionals a comfy place at the Faire to take a break and meet new colleagues. We’ll also facilitate some quick and fun ways for educators to trade ideas about incorporating making into their learning environments and overcoming maker ed challenges. As a thank-you for participating in the Lounge, we’ll have some great teacher-oriented swag bags. Many thanks to supervolunteers Mike DeGraff, Claudia Pepper, and Laura Minnigerode and these sponsors for making all of this happen: Five Elements Furniture, SparkFun, Texas Instruments, and UTeach.

Three huge tents devoted to Maker Ed. Fairegoers will experience a dizzying array of hands-on activities and demonstrations presented by schools and other educational programs from pre-K through college levels. Anchored by AMMF sponsor Skybridge Academy, these edu-makers will give Fairegoers opportunities to sharpen their wilderness survival skills, practice the fine art of bubble making, learn how a couple of local high school kids have built a 3D printer, and much, much more. 

More edu-awesomeness outside the Maker Ed tents. Some of our event sponsors are bringing exhibits and activities so big they’ve claimed their own chunk of AMMF real estate:

  • In the ever-popular Austin Tinkering School pavilion, kids can make their own racecars and try their luck in the Nerdy Derby, or hang out in the Open Shop, deconstructing electronics and creating their own marvels with all kinds of interesting building materials.
  • The Thinkery’s Kid Zone will offer multiple STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) activities for young makers. Its hand-built trebuchet will be flinging things the old-fashioned way throughout the day.
  • On the outdoor stage, kids of all ages will be amazed and edified by the Mad Science show. Grownups will learn to safely wow their friends and enemies with the fiery arts at Tim Deagan’s Propane 101 for Artists and Makers. And everyone, I mean everyone, will have a blast at Steve Wolf’s multi-award-winning Science in the Movies show. Check out the performance schedule and plan your day at the Faire!
  • Inside the Expo Center arena, beyond the planetarium, aerial dancers, and the gajillion fascinating craft, tech, and arts exhibits, you’ll find a workshop space where you can learn to program a Raspberry Pi, ferment your own vinegar from table scraps, make a perfect hula-hoop, or turn your small business dreams into reality. Reserve your space in a workshop today!

This is only the tip of the iceberg, people. I’ve highlighted the overtly educational features of the Faire, but no matter how you choose to spend your time at AMMF, you’ll learn something. Jump off a tower into a giant marshmallow with the Stunt Ranch crew, find out how an intrepid professor is sustainably living in a dumpster for a year, or pedal like you’ve never pedaled before at the Austin Bike Zoo’s Interactive Wonderland and Carnival. I guarantee you’ll come away with that unmistakable feeling that we are all learners, we are all teachers. And for sure, we are all makers.


You have a bunch of ways to enter this random drawing, with up to 10 chances to win an AMMF family pack of 2 adult and 2 child passes. If you’ve already bought your tickets, be sure to let your friends know about this opportunity to attend the Austin Mini Maker Faire for free! Enter by midnight Thursday, May 1, and we’ll announce the lucky winner right here in a blog update on Friday morning. Good luck! 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

UPDATE: Congratulations to giveaway winner Suzanne H.! We look forward to seeing you and your family on Saturday. And thanks to everyone who entered the drawing. You can still buy discounted AMMF tickets in advance (through 10am Saturday) here.

Anniversary Week Giveaways: We have winners!

Many thanks to everyone who entered our two-year anniversary giveaways this week and helped spread the word. We've notified all our winning entrants by email. Great big heaps o’ gratitude to the wonderful businesses and organizations who made it possible by contributing all the items we're giving away.

The entry process and randomized drawing went ever so smoothly thanks to the free app known as Rafflecopter. And the winners are . . .

Friendly Chemistry curriculum:
Kristi C.
STEAM3 Interactive Playground passes:

Stacey L. and Andee K.
Toybrary Austin 6-visit Stay & Play punch card:

May T.
Austin Tinkering School set of 3 Tinkering Challenge Boxes:

Monica P.
Smudge Studios art workshop gift certificate:

Jan B.
The Universe Trilogy children’s science books:

Jody H.

For those of you whose names were not drawn, here are two virtual hugs of consolation:

  • If you register for STEAM3 by Dec. 31 using the special code ALTEDATX, you’ll receive an extra $10 off the special earlybird price on the complete conference, interactive playground, and VIP party.
  • All entrants in the Friendly Chemistry giveaway are eligible for a 25% discount off the purchase of a student textbook. Just email Joey & Lisa at, tell them you came from Alt Ed Austin’s giveaway, and you’ll get a special code to use at checkout.

I look forward to sharing many more alternative learning resources and opportunities with you in the coming year!


Giveaway: The Universe Trilogy

Since I discovered them ten years ago, I’ve been seizing every opportunity to share my love for the three beautiful children’s books in The Universe Trilogy. What better excuse than Alt Ed Austin’s 2nd Anniversary Giveaway Week?


In this charming book, the “Universe” is your home, your host, and your storyteller. If it could talk, it would say exactly what Jennifer has scripted for it.
—Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director, Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History


These books, all written by Jennifer Morgan, do an excellent job of explaining complex scientific concepts in ways that children can easily grasp without dumbing them down. Just as importantly, they do it in ways that inspire awe in readers of all ages. The books are narrated in first person—by the universe itself—and addressed directly to the reader. It’s an unusual strategy, and it works.


The story of life is, quite simply, the greatest story ever told . . . and here is the perfect first telling. —Bill McKibben, author, The End of Nature, the first-ever book about global warming; president and cofounder,


The illustrations, painted by Dana Lynne Anderson, are gorgeous and expansive. The Big Bang Theory, the formation of stars and planets, the origins and early development of life, and the evolution of humans will make lasting impressions on young readers’ minds in part because the facts are accompanied by such unforgettable images.


Mammals Who Morph . . . will engage and enchant, as well as educate. . . . It is a must for every school library—and I shall give it to my grandchildren and my sister’s grandchildren and my godchildren . . .
—Dr. Jane Goodall, founder, Jane Goodall Institute;
UN Messenger of Peace


If you are lucky enough to win this trilogy in our drawing, I predict that, like Jane Goodall, you’ll eventually want to get more to give away. If so (or, perish the thought, you don’t win), you can buy them directly from Dawn Publications, one of the best publishers of quality books on science and nature for families. In the meantime, be sure to get your entries in by midnight on Thursday, December 12! I’ll announce the winners of all of the week’s giveaways on Friday.


a Rafflecopter giveaway