#104. Learn a common communication code

IDEA #104. Learn a common communication code. Morse code—dots and dashes—is great for sending or receiving messages, even if it is no longer a requirement for a basic amateur radio license. Or try semaphore, also known as wig-wag, which uses two flags to send alphanumeric messages, much like the colored signal flags used at sea.

Although the original uses of Morse code and semaphore communication have gone obsolete with improvements in electronic telecommunication, both are examples of highly successful attempts to make possible reliable communication over distance, and both still have some utility. The youngster interested in radio transmitting and not just listening can learn Morse (and still and qualify for an amateur radio license with special privileges); a flashlight can communicate a message in Morse in the darkness—in other words, the code can still do what it was invented to do, even if messages are no longer sent by telegraph operators. (Wikipedia, incidentally, has a great page on Morse code, with many linked resources.

Semaphore and signal flags can be used to send messages over much longer distances, and special “shorthand” jul08groupings of just a few wig-wags or signal flags are still established ways of sending common messages; websites devoted to both these forms of communication can be found. While a full set of cloth signal flags can be expensive to buy or hard to make, paper duplicates can be made with crayons, paints, or markers. Two sets of semaphore flags—one for each friend or “station”—require only some cloth and sticks.

Children’s and young adult literature of an earlier era often featured “secret“ communication using one or more of the methods suggested in this activity. Reading code is like knowing another language, with the added benefit of being a language that is well suited to technology-based communication.

Truly ambitious youngsters in search of a means of private communication might consider learning American Sign Language, a fully developed language (that represents a culture, as well) whose complexity and grace—especially once the user passes the finger-spelling stage—is extraordinary and whose use is thought to play a significant role in developing certain language centers in the brain.

For the young learner who is simply entranced by codes, a whole world of cryptography can be opened up by an exploration of reference and specific materials in any library. With so much of the world of codes and ciphers based on mathematical principles, their study can have a very positive effect in the development of mathematical and analytical thinking skills.

“Problem-Solving Communities”

A recent blog post by Steven Mintz on the Inside Higher Ed site extolled the virtues of “problem-solving communities’ The piece referenced the history of problem-solving organizations and competitions in elementary and secondary education and gave a particular shout-out to Future Problem Solving Program International, an international organization founded in 1974 to promote problem-solving as a specific skill and mindset.

Twenty-five years ago I had a brief stint as assistant coach to a team of students who were engaged in the competitions managed by Odyssey of the Mind, founded in 1978, now also an international organization imagesand competition. Our team made it to the World Finals, but a tight budget kept me off the plane to Colorado, and thus I missed seeing our team finish third there! But the experience, and the program, inspired me.

Part of that inspiration has drawn me to a certain genre of reality TV that involves problem-solving and puts the problem and the solving over human drama. The old Scrapheap Challenge (known in the U.S. as Junkyard Wars) program enchanted me, with teams competing to solve engineering challenges under tight constraints and limited in their selection of raw materials to what they could find in what seemed to be the world’s most wonderful junkyards. Project Runway at its best offers the same kind of experience: a problem, constraints, solution design, coaching, and critiques. All these shows lack is the opportunity to iterate and improve the work product, but otherwise they give a fair representation of the “design thinking” process that many schools are talking about these days.

But I digress. The Interested Child likes to reference programs and opportunities offered in schools that might pique the curiosity and perhaps in time the passions of kids, and programs like Odyssey of the Mind and its counterpart, Destination Imagination, are superb in this area–and we suspect there are local and regional versions and variations that also ignite children’s creativity around solving complex problems in ways that incorporate every aspect of STEM, STEAM, and intellectual endeavors in general. There are also numerous robotics programs and competitions that serve the same purpose–and then there is Canstruction, which combines design, problem-solving, and service learning.

So if your school–or your interested child’s school–has a team or a program based on the idea of problem-solving, look into it. If you’re an interested adult, you might even ask about volunteering as a coach or a driver or a fund-raiser.

And if there is no “problem-solving” program, suggest that having an Odyssey of the Mind, robotics, Canstruction, Destination Imagination, or similar program would be a great way to engage kids in hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, the humanities in action, and even service learning. I remember the thrill of watching kids’ gadgets and machines and solutions in action at OotM competitions, and you and any interested children you know can be thrilled, too.

#102. Become an expert on something

IDEA #102: Become an expert on something: ball bearings, the moons of Jupiter, the manufacture of lip gloss, the art of Renoir. Learn as much as you can about the science or engineering or art behind your topic; offer to give a presentation on your subject to your class at school or to some other group.

At some point many children become at least temporarily obsessed with something, and parents or guardians can nurtures the idea of obsession and expertise. Even so, many other children have a difficult time latching onto something that is truly of great interest, and so it is the combined job of the family and the child to try to identify something that has the potential to become, if not an obsession, at least the center of a strong, deep interest.

Sometimes the subject can be elicited through a kind of Socratic dialogue with the child, trying to draw him or her out on some apparent interest, past of present. The interest might be related to sport, to family, to nature, to the arts, to a pet or a hobby—it does not matter. What does matter is that child begins to see value in amassing more than a superficial knowledge or skill and to reach the point where one piece of information invites the discovery of yet another, and so on, until the youngster’s knowledge may exceed that of those around and even become a source of pride.

Many school projects are designed around the idea that the student should find an interest and develop it, and the best of such projects succeed admirably in inspiring children. Sometimes the student may carry the interest forward with him or her, building upon it until true expertise is obtained.

There is of course a danger that a narrow and passionate interest will somehow run counter to the exigencies of mr-peabody-and-sherman-tv-showschool learning, or that the individual will indeed run the danger of boring friends and family with recitations of facts and figures. With regard to the former, a well-developed interest is regarded as the sign of a capable and disciplined mind, while it may be up to those friends and family members to help give the young expert some perspective on where and when a demonstration of mastery might or might not be appropriate. But the child who possesses the curiosity and the discipline to develop a strong interest has acquired intellectual character of a fundamental and important sort.

#100. Learn how to read a weather forecast and a weather map

IDEA #100. Learn how to read a weather forecast and a weather map. Become familiar with the words, the concepts, the symbols, and the numerical information that appear on a comprehensive weather map, weather site, or weather forecast page.

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 2.18.45 PMIt’s summer, and the weather probably matters more to young people now than at any other time of the year (except perhaps when they and their teachers are awaiting snow day decisions). And never before has information on the weather been so readily available to the average person—on television and radio weather forecasts (and you haven’t heard a serious forecast if you haven’t heard Vermont Public Radio’s “Eye on the Sky” broadcasts, rich in detail and available here on the internet), in newspapers, and above all on a variety of public and commercial internet weather sites like The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Weather Underground.

Summer can be a time of extreme weather events like heat waves and hurricanes, and the summer of 2015 is already producing its share of weather oddities. The young person who can become an adept consumer of weather-related information and who understands the significance of terms like high and low pressure, fronts, dew points, degree-days, and precipitation will be equipped, perhaps, to help friends and relations make plans and avoid or takeScreen Shot 2015-07-16 at 2.35.49 PM advantage of meteorological phenomena. Simply the ability to read local radar maps can be a useful skill in predicting where and when “scattered showers” may fall, and the information often expressed as probabilities—”a 20% chance of rain tonight”—can also help the young weather maven understand more about the probability and statistics as well as to read different kinds of graphs and charts. There are also specialized forecast formats for aviators, mariners, and forest rangers—even major league sports teams have their own private forecasts made.

Global climate change is with us, after all, and so the odds are good that we will also become more adept at parsing news on weather and its trends as our local environments become more and more subject to the forces that have been set in motion and that will require us to adapt our behaviors and our expectations to new conditions. If indeed “everybody talks about the weather,” those who make sense when doing so will be increasingly worth listening to.

#99. Become really good at a strategy- or mathematics-based card or board game

IDEA #99. Become really good at a strategy- or mathematics-based card or board game. Study some books on chess, and practice until you are ready to enter a local tournament. Work to develop serious skill at other games, like cribbage, bridge, go, or even checkers. Try becoming a bridge master.

Summer is game-playing time in many families, among groups of friends, and even at camps. Some people enjoy playing games above all things, and many people are blessed with a basic “game sense” that grants them a certain degree of success. But skill in serious strategy games, as opposed to those that are based on luck, can be developed, and many popular board and card games can be played by expert players at a very high intellectual level.

Few games have attracted more thoughtful attention than chess, contract bridge, and the Japanese strategy game, go. Any library’s games section will have numerous books on chess strategy and on bridge, and a larger library is likely to have books on go; the internet is another obvious source of instruction. Mastery of certain basic skills and strategies in all these games can rapidly improve a player’s level of success, and all these games have organizations devoted to raising the level of play as well as to allowing young players of equal skill to test their abilities against one another in tournaments and other ranking events. If the youngster is interested in any of these games, there is literally no limit to what he or she can achieve.

Even humbler and simpler games, like checkers, Monopoly, and other card games, have established strategies by which the most successful players play, and the internet has provided a forum for serious players that is also a great resource for novices who might wish to become serious themselves. There are tournaments held in all these games, too.

More esoteric games—strategy games like Dungeons and Dragons, Scrabble, backgammon, and other patent card and board games like Uno and Five Crowns—all have their serious players, and once again the internet has enabled communities to form. There are even junior tournaments in Scrabble, and some schools even have competitive Scrabble teams that are every bit as disciplined and intense as school chess teams.

Even if the youngster only wants to become good enough to beat a grandparent at rummy now and then, the art of seeing any game as an assemblage of strategies, contingencies, and problems to be solved is powerful intellectual exercise. Along the way the child may also develop his or her number sense, spatial visualization skills, memory, powers of observation, and ability to visualize far ahead of play.

#97. Explore a museum or cultural collection at a local college or university

IDEA #97. Explore a museum or cultural collection at a local college or university

Your local college or university may in fact have the superb art gallery you have already explored, but perhaps it has other collections that are more esoteric or more modest. These collections may pique or inspire new interests, and a visit may hold many surprises.

The first order of business is to determine what is there. A search through the college department listings on line may turn up a “museum” or “collection” of whose existence you had been unaware, or perhaps the college library has information. It is possible that the facility you seek has limited hours or limited access; you may even have to throw yourself on the mercy of a librarian, curator, or docent for permission to view and explore.

In the aggregate, America’s university collections of cultural and natural objects dwarf those of the Smithsonian, and locally you may find yourself gazing at birds’ eggs from the Arctic or ethnographic relics from nineteenth-century journeys to the

Yale's Peabody Museum

Yale’s Peabody Museum

South Seas; maybe you’ll even find dinosaur skeletons

. You may come across surprising and delightful troves of material from your own community’s human or geological past, or the papers and possessions of a well-known graduate of the school. Perhaps there is an arboretum or a special garden or greenhouse.

The actual content and size of the collections do not matter in this activity. The object is to explore the ways in which other minds have worked to order knowledge and experience for the use and edification of others and to let oneself be captivated and inspired in the process.

#96. Master a pre-electronic form of mathematical calculation

IDEA #96. Master a pre-electronic form of mathematical calculation: learn how to use an abacus, a slide rule, a quipu, a Curta calculator, or some other calculating device or method. Instructions can be found in libraries or the Internet, and slide rules can be found at yard sales, on Internet auction sites, or even in dusty drawers in old mathematics classrooms. There is even chisanbop, a really efficient form of calculating using just the fingers that can be learned on the Internet; it is Korean in origin, and experienced practitioners can perform chisanbop calculations almost as fast as an electronic calculator.

It is hard to believe that just two generations ago most of the electronic technology that we now use to perform mathematical calculations was unavailable to the general public. Even electric adding machines used power only to assist mechanical processes, and only the most expensive and cumbersome machines were capable of simple multiplication.

Even so, human genius in many cultures had observed certain characteristics of numbers and created hand-operated devices that could perform sophisticated and precise operations. The east Asian abacus, for example, can add, subtract, multiply, and divide in skilled hands almost as quickly as an electronic calculator; although its capacities are limited, it is still sufficient for most commercial needs. The slide rule, images-1based on logarithmic principles, enables rapid calculation in a number of modes, depending on the design of the rule (not, incidentally, a ruler, since a slide rule is not made for measurement); during World War II virtually every complex machine short of the atomic bomb was essentially developed by engineers using only slide rules.

The Curta calculator, a rarity these days and rather expensive when one can be found, is a masterpiece of precisioncurta-1-nolegend2 design and manufacture from Liechtenstein that could do virtually anything a slide rule could. But the Curta is entirely digital, taking input and yielding data in precise numbers. We are partial to the Curta if for no other reason than that its mechanical elegance is almost unsurpassed. If the youngster has access to one of these, simply handling it will be a satisfying experience.

Chisanbop (also chisenbop) made its appearance in the U.S. just as cheap electronic calculators were imagesentering classrooms, and so a promising and capable way of teaching students to perform calculations literally by hand never quite had its day in school. Like the mechanical calculators, chisanbop provides its own education in aspects of number theory.

If the youngster is intrigued by this kind of technology, there are still other, less known systems that have been used for numerical recording and calculating, and there are also groups of enthusiasts who are determined to keep alive the skill of using them. While teachers may decry the apparent de-emphasis of “math facts” in contemporary education, the simple fact is the humans have been engaged in developing ways to make calculating “automatic” for hundreds of years.

#92. Find and read from cover to cover a magazine about science or some branch of science

IDEA #92. Go to a library or a bookstore (or maybe ask a science teacher at your school) to find and read from cover to cover a magazine about science or some branch of science. Scientific American would be a natural choice, but there are magazines about astronomy, environmental science, and technology that are pretty easy to find.

In the world of science—any science—periodicals serve a paramount purpose as the vehicle through which the results of virtually all scholarly research are made public. Even Scientific American, which has been published for more than a century as the most prominent magazine for laymen as well as scientists, occasionally presents new findings, and it remains important as a monthly summary of the most significant issues and compelling ideas in the field.

But along with Scientific American there are a host of magazines, some highly technical and others written for non-scientists, whose aims are to introduce their readership to the excitement and challenge of science in the twenty-first century. Science and Nature are probably the most prestigious general publications for scientists and medical researchers, while popular magazines like Science News and BBC Focus cover many issues.

Specific sciences also have their own magazines. Astronomy and Sky & Telescope are leading astronomy magazines, but there are other very readable periodicals in fields from archaeology to zoology. There are also many, many magazines with a technical focus, some general and others relating specifically to a single aspect of computer science, say, or alternative energy.

The youngster who can spend some time leafing through one of these magazines is likely to find a few articles of interest, a few things that are intellectually challenging, and very likely an entertaining but partially baffling array of advertisements and non-editorial content that serve, if nothing else, to provide a sense of the complexity and richness of the world of science.

#91. Make something really complicated or really large out of pieces from a child’s building toy set

IDEA #91. It’s part art, part engineering: make something really complicated or really large out of a child’s building toy set like Legos, Construx, TinkerToys, or K’nex. Find a younger sibling or a pre-school teacher who can help you amass a truly awesome pile of raw material; choose your objective, make a design, and build away!

Go play with children’s toys!

If this seems like the simplest of all possible suggestions, think again. The lessons of pure design, structural visualization, logical planning and execution, measurement, and improvisation are essential tools for solving a great many of life’s problems, big and little. Here is a chance to be a design thinker, a maker, a true practitioner of STEAM: science, technology, engineering design, art, and mathematics.

In fact, being a professional display builder for Lego is said to be a lucrative career, and at one point the “audition” involved the deceptively simple task of building a sphere out of the random pieces the company supplied. Lego was looking for creative, adaptable brains who could imagine and then build whole new product lines and who could make the toys themselves into hitherto unimaginable constructions. All of the commercial building toys—or even a pile of homemade blocks made of scrap lumber, for that matter—have the potential to transcend their status as elementary toys to become the elemental stuff of wonderful new visions, made real.

Yard and rummage sales are great sources of these toys. They might need a quick bath in soapy water before use, but they last nearly forever, and losses to breakage or misplacement simply add to the challenge of conceptualizing and completing ambitious designs.

Alternatively, the exercise could be to start small: discover the fewest number of pieces that can make a recognizable version of a specific object, for example. Or create hordes of tiny objects or figures, arrayed in patterns.

The possibilities here are truly endless.

#87. Bake a loaf (or two) of bread

IDEA #87. Bake a loaf (or two) of bread. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it’s a great exercise in food chemistry, cookery, and patience.

They say it’s the “staff of life,” and bread or bread-like foods are part of nearly every culinary tradition on the planet. Basically some sort of ground grain, usually but not always with a leavening agent like yeast or baking powder, breads are excellent sources of bread loavescarbohydrates—regarded by most as a dietary necessary, in reasonable quantities—and their varied textures are an epicure’s delight—and they just tend to taste pretty good.

Bread recipes and video instruction on parts of the job like kneading are all over the internet, and breads can be as exotic or as ho-hum as the baker wishes. The many cultural traditions represented in the bread family—from Middle Eastern pitas to South Asian naans to Native American fry-breads to the multifarious baguettes, limpas, pumpernickels, and “white bread” of Europe and America—could represent a cook’s tour of the planet for an ambitious and curious baker.

We recommend tackling a yeast-raised wheat bread as a first go—the preparation of the ingredients, the proofing or activating of the yeast, the kneading, the waiting for rises, and the smell of the hot loaves as they come out of the oven and are set aside to cool before slicing are a great combination of work and pleasure and a fine exercise in deferred gratification.

For thirty-some years we have been using the basic bread recipe downloadable here, the most flexible we know of. Based on white flour, yeast, sweetener (to feed the yeast), some kind of shortening, and a bit of salt, any sort of whole grain can be added, the sweetener is wide-open to experimentation, and the fat can be a low-flavor oil, butter, margarine, or (we suppose) animal fat or ghee. The process involves first mixing all the ingredients except the flour, yeast, and liquid; then add the yeast to this mixture with the bath of warm (boiled or scalded to sterilize, then cooled to body temperature) liquid; then slowly adding the flour after the yeast has burst into bubbly, fragrant life—some young bakers are intrigued by the idea of yeasts being living organisms, some are horrified.

This is a twice-raised (actually thrice-raised) bread. Mix the dough to achieve a consistency so that when touched the dough doesn’t readily stick to fingers, then begin kneading. When fully kneaded, the dough is shaped into a ball, covered with a damp cloth, and left to rise in a warm (but not hot) place. When doubled in size, punch down, re-form into a ball, then allow to rise again. Divide the dough into equal parts, then shape into loaves, allow to rise, and then bake in a 350-degree oven for 30–35 minutes—perhaps a bit less if being baked as oblong loaves on a flat sheet rather than in loaf pans. Loaves should sound a bit hollow when tapped on the bottom when done.

We suspect you could use gluten-free flour to make this bread, and the recipe’s flexibility also invites experiments with form: we’ve made pizza dough and dinner rolls from the same recipe as well as long baguette-shaped loaves and our usual loaf-pan loaves.

If kneading sounds like a challenge, here’s another, no-knead recipe that substitutes patience for elbow-grease and makes an outstanding large, round loaf of bread.

As always, interested young bakers should be supervised as they work around hot liquids and hot ovens.

Once one recipe has been tried successfully, it’s time to explore the world’s recipe books for new adventures in bread!

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