#67. Navigate! Next time you take a journey, either by yourself or with friends or family, take over the map-reading and route-selection duties

IDEA #67. Navigate! Next time you take a journey, either by yourself or with friends or family, take over the map-reading and route-selection duties. Find the most detailed maps you can, and learn to read them carefully and accurately.

Map-reading is an essential literacy skill that adults (including, alas, many teachers) assume that children have learned through osmosis. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case, and so even map-illiterate-proof resources like Google Maps and in-car GPS navigation systems are not always enough to keep people from becoming lost.erie

In the United Kingdom, home of the superb Ordnance Survey maps that can be found in many households, map-reading is something of a fetish, and excellent school geography curricula ensure that few British people are ever geographically lost, at least for long. Although American USGS topographic maps are of excellent quality, they are generally useless for just “getting around,” and their delicious intricacies are seldom taught in school. Instead, Americans rely on inconsistently drawn and keyed road maps that are seldom of a scale to be truly informative; increasingly, they rely on GPS readouts that concentrate only on the route and the destination, utterly ignoring terrain, settlements, places of interest, and other features that can enrich map-reading and fuel curiosity.

Nonetheless, American children can become excellent readers of maps, and the household that takes the time to preface journeys of any length with a review of the route will be modeling the idea of using maps as a resource as well as instructing children in their use. At some point the child can be instructed to do the route-planning on his or her own, and there will be some pride of accomplishment when the destination is reached without incident. It would be equally fruitful and fun to spend some time looking at an especially detailed, high-quality map—a government topo, perhaps, or a navigational chart—of a place with special meaning to the child. Landmarks and landforms, routes and settlements, all these have been determined by and/or have determined how a place looks and feels to those who go there and live there, and to a skilled map-reader a two-dimensional representation can be as informative and evocative as a photograph or even an actual visit.

For families who share an excitement about places and maps, there is also the potential thrill of taking a “blue highways” trip, in the spirit of William Least Heat-Moon’s extraordinary 1982 narrative of that title recounting his journeys off the interstates on state and local roads often portrayed in blue on old road maps.

#66. Take a factory tour

IDEA #66. Take a factory tour and write about the experience.

Once a feature of almost every American community with any sort of industry, factory tours are becoming more and more rare. The “offshoring” of manufacturing has not hit all domestic factories, concerns about liability have closed the doors of more and more of the remaining facilities establishments to visitors.

Still, there remain a number of famous and not-so-famous businesses that maintain elaborate factory tours. Many, like those in the food and beverage industry, work hard at attracting and entertaining tourists, and free samples are part of the treat. Others are proud to show off state-of-the-art manufacturing operations and are more likely to appeal to a technically savvy crowd.

Factory tours may be located by word of mouth, by tourist websites (and try an Internet search on “factory tours [yourstate]”), and in one of the several guidebooks that focus on such sites. It’s always best to call ahead, as some tours are by reservation only or occur only at specified hours.

The object here is to get as close as possible to a production process. Mass production and the factory system are the two hallmarks of the Age of Industry, an age that less and less visible in North America. To see raw materials transformed into a finished product is to witness what was two hundred years ago a marvel, and a fast-moving production line, whether it is producing cupcakes or convertibles, can still set the heart racing and the imagination whirring.

For the thinking child, the sight of a factory in production mode is an opportunity to ponder the nature of technology and the nature of industrial society itself. Look closely at the workers or at the automated machinery that may be doing much of the work, and think about what life must have been like when just about everyone who did not live on a farm worked in a factory, with the noise, grit, and superhuman pace an everyday apart of life. Now that much of this work has either been automated or moved to nations whose factories tourists seldom visit, factory tours are as much about a vanishing way of life as they are about producing. A journal entry would be a great way to reflect on such an experience, and any social studies or history teacher would be delighted to hear more if the child were to document the tour in a more public form.

#65. Find a local scientific or medical laboratory (try a college or university) or a company whose work is primarily involved with science or engineering. See if you can spend a few days observing, or perhaps even offer to volunteer.

IDEA #65. Find a local scientific or medical laboratory (try a college or university) or a company whose work is primarily involved with science or engineering. See if you can spend a few days observing, or perhaps even offer to volunteer.

Science and technology form the backbone of the American innovation economy, and many institutions and companies, small and large, are deeply engaged in research and development. In some cases the work is “pure” science, tracking down basic knowledge, while in other cases the work is applying scientific know-how to specific practical problems. In any case, somewhere relatively close by should be a commercial, educational, or medical laboratory that the interested youngster could approach about observing science at work.

There are likely to be practical or even legal restrictions on any such activity, but the chance to spend a few days simply watching scientists or engineers at work should be well worth any time that is involved. Some places may welcome questions, while others will be less receptive to interruption, but if the youngster displays an active, thoughtful curiosity, a supportive relationship could grow. Depending on the nature of the work and the age and capabilities of the young observer, it might also be possible to parlay this interest into an opportunity to volunteer or intern.

Most school science classes do a good job teaching students about the theory of science, and the best of them include realistic laboratory exercises that give students the chance to perform procedures, record data, and actually apply some theory. But until a student has seen a real laboratory in action and shared some of the day-in, day-out routine of science—especially when the science being done is original work directed at answering important questions—he or she can never fully appreciate the complexity and the richness of authentic scientific inquiry.

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