#86. Build a precise scale model of something.

IDEA #86. Build a precise scale model of something. Try making an exact model of your room, for example, complete with furniture and belongings, at an exact scale of one inch to one foot (1″:1′). And remember, a scale model can be larger that the original object.

When one considers that a full-scale battleship AND an exact one-foot model of the same vessel can be built from the same set of instructions, the power of the concept of scale becomes apparent.

The art of scale model design begins with the concepts of precise measurement and proportion. A model of an existing object for which plans are not available begins with measurement, and all models require an understanding of the mathematical coIMG_1221ncept that ALL relationships must be set in the same proportion.

Materials for a scale model project are not particularly important, although resources like stiff cardboard, foam-core board, and balsa wood can be exceptionally useful. For the ambitious, many art and craft supply stores sell materials for scale modeling, and some even sell architectural details—roof shingles, door hardware, and the like—set to particular scales. A proper job also includes tools for cutting to precise measurements, and some kind of adhesive for fastening; with sharp cutting tools and aromatic glues, caution should be observed.

In IDEA #60 we suggested the creation, as an art project, of a giant-scale model of a smaller object; such projects can have a certain whimsical charm. We referred there to a giant pencil as well as a giant lipstick, but any small object can be scaled up for the purpose of enjoying this activity.

#84. Find a hardcover book that is about to be thrown away and very carefully disassemble it

IDEA #84. Find a hardcover book that is about to be thrown away and very carefully disassemble it. Figure out what the physical parts are of a hardcover book; see how the cover is made, and how the pages are held together. Look up “bookbinding” online or in an encyclopedia and learn as much as you can about the process. If you are inspired, try building a blank book of your own, with a beautiful cover, to give to a friend or loved one.

This may seem distinctly sacrilegious to committed bibliophiles, but for a young person with an interest in books this can be a solemn and significant act, like a medical student dissecting a cadaver.

The printed word, they say, is on its way out, and yet physical books persist and multiply. There is something elementally satisfying about handling a book, and for many the feel and smell of a book can be in themselves pleasurable. Young people do not always realize the power of scent, but in later years the smell of an old book that has lain on a dry and dusty limantel booksbrary shelf or that has gently mildewed in a seaside home may bring back rafts of memories. Books as objects are a medium in themselves.

Simple curiosity might motivate the careful deconstruction of a physical text. The act itself might inspire some research as to the parts and terms of the publishing and printing worlds—the meaning of endpapers, half-titles, front and back matter, and signatures. Each book, even a paperback of the meanest sort, has been designed, not only in the cover design, but in the choice of paper, font, illustrations, and textual organization (forewords, acknowledgments, prefaces, bibliographies, notes, afterwords, and so forth). Imagining why the choices were made that resulted in the finished product can also raise questions about the appropriateness of the choices or about the interests and backstories of those who made them.

The deeper structure of the physical book will reveal hidden complexities—stitchings and gluings invisible to the reader. The dissector may be inspired to do some research on the bookbinding process—and all the elements of bookmaking, from papermaking to printing to design and binding, are in themselves highly developed crafts practiced by professionals and amateurs alike. The project might inspire a visit to a printing shop or a bindery, or at least to ask the local library how it prepares and repairs the books in its collection.

The reader comfortably familiar with the nature of a book as a made object will carry with him or her a deepened sense of the significance of text—and this reader will always be one more voice raised in defense of the book against the inroads of whatever technology is next ballyhooed as portending the death of the printed word.

Holiday Gift Ideas from the Professoriate

In a year-end fraught with anxieties about issues of justice, equity, and peace, The Interested Child believes that the greatest gifts that one can give anyone in 2014 are 1) a humble, considered, and empathetic perspective–the old advice about not judging a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes is an aphorism worth repeating to the young–and 2), above all, a sense of optimism and agency in the world. But these aren’t gifts that are easily wrapped to be opened at a holiday table or under a tree, and holidays for the young tend to include at least some more material and festal gift-giving.

Normally I don’t reblog other people’s content or extol the virtues of things as gifts, but the other day The Chronicle of Higher Educations “Profhacker” blog ran its compilation of gift ideas. Most of the suggestions were for grown-up items, but several contributors included ideas for gifts to engage the Interested Child (often in a family or collaborative context). Here are excerpts containing the suggestions that we liked best. (The complete post can be found here.)

From Jason B. Jones (follow him on Twitter), Director of Educational Technology at Trinity College (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • Groovy Lab in a Box. Groovy Lab in a Box offers you everything you need to do a whole slew of science experiments on a given topic each month. There’s also online support for further experiments and research. I will say I tried this with the 11yo, a 7th-grader who loves science, and he thought he was about 3 years too old for it. Good for incipiently nerdy elementary school kids.
  • Makey Makey. Dubbed “an invention kit for anyone,” Makey Makey turns anything that conducts electricity into an interface for a computer. (Canonical examples include using fruit to play instruments, drawing interfaces with pencils, and so forth.) Makey Makey is great for all ages, but probably most ideal for elementary and middle school students. (That said, you can hook it up with a Pi or an Arduino and do super-cool stuff, too.)
  • Kano. Speaking of a Raspberry Pi, the Kano is an awesome implementation: it’s a snap-together computer, more or less, that even a kid can build. (The aforementioned 11yo was running programs on it in about 7 minutes, and he had to wait for a firmware update.) It includes everything but a monitor. I backed this on Kickstarter, and although it was s-l-o-w to finish, has turned out a real treat.
  • If your gift recipient is patient and likes robots, they might be interested in the Edison. Edison is a LEGO-compatible robot that can sense aspects of its environment. It seems like it will be fun. They are taking pre-orders now, and assert that they’ll ship in mid-December, but I backed this as a Kickstarter, and it shipped yesterday … and the estimated delivery is December 31! (Fortunately, the 11yo has gotten used to waiting for things after the Kano … I’m a terrible dad.)
  • For people who come at making and creative projects via crafts, one of the Sew Electric kits is just the ticket. You can either get the book or kits that include needles, batteries, LEDs, and even an Arduino. It’s awesome.

Board games recommended by Brian Croxall (follow him on Twitter), Digital Humanities Strategist at Emory University’s Digital Scholarship Commons  and Lecturer of English (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • The one that we have played more than any else in my house is Terror in Meeple City, which was called Rampage until recently. In this game you construct a cityscape with buildings supported by meeples and use your big, blocky wooden monster to jump on or blow down buildings. You’ll be flicking ice cream trucks at the other monsters trying to knock them down. It’s tremendous fun and laugh-out-loud silly, and my kids can’t get enough of it.
  • Our other favorite this year is Mascarade. Everyone at the table is given a role card (king, queen, judge, inquisitor, and so on). The game starts when the cards are flipped over and the first person takes someone else’s card, puts it under the table and switches it—or doesn’t—with their own card. When people try to take the power of their card, they might find out that they’re not who they thought they were. It plays 2—13 players, although it shines at 6 or more, and it’s hilarious.

And a couple more games, from Ryan Cordell (follow him on Twitter), Assistant Professor of English at Northeastern University (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • Do you remember the first time you saw someone playing Minecraft and thought: it’s like an endless Lego set… Well Lego has brought Minecraft into the physical world this year, and the sets are sure to blow the minds of any 6-to-12-year-olds in your life (and, let’s face it, you too). The sets are The Farm, The First Night, The Cave, The Ender Dragon, The Mine, and the one I’m perhaps most excited to dig into with my kids, The Crafting Box.
  • We’ve probably listed it here before, but The Settlers of Catan is the board game for those who like board games, assuming that any gamers on your list somehow missed this one. If you’re buying for someone already addicted to the game (like my family), perhaps a board frame to keep those pesky hexes in place while playing. For younger kids, No Stress Chess is a great way to learn the moves of a chess game without, as the title promises, getting stressed about all the different options. Our twin 6-year-olds love this game.

I’ll add that “Settlers of Catan” has been a big hit among the game-players in our household for some years, along with an odd little mindbender called “Kill Dr. Lucky.”

Happy Holidays!

#81. Find a bird guide and start trying to identify the birds you commonly see and hear

IDEA #81. Find a bird guide and start trying to identify the birds you commonly see and hear. Your local Audubon Society can help you develop your skills, and they probably sponsor organized bird-watching events at which you can learn from serious birders. Start your own life list.

No creatures so lend themselves to observation as birds, and the extraordinary profusion of species and the relative ease with which a serious birdwatcher can pile up a long list of species sighted has made birdwatching one of the world’s most popular hobbies. Committed watchers travel the world, often undergoing considerable hardship and vast expense, to build up their life lists, logs of all the types of birds they have ever seen.

Even better, birds are also audible, and many birders are as eager to hear and recognize new species as they are to see them. This auditory birdwatching adds another level of challenge to the activity as a whole.

Field guides to birds of various regions are readily available in print and on line; any library should have several from which to choose. Increasingly publishers are producing guides that use photographs instead of the old, and often lovely, paintings and drawings. There are also audio guides to bird calls, although these may be a bit harder to find.

A sharp-eyed young person armed with a good guide can easily spot several dozen species in most locales over the course of a season, and if there are migratory flyways nearby this number can increase dramatically. Add some binoculars to the watcher’s toolkit and the number will grow even more. As fall turns to winter in the northern hemisphere many bird species are migrating, but the thinner foliage can make those who linger more easily visible.

If the youngster is truly bitten by the birdwatching bug, the next step is to find a local birding group—perhaps through a local Audubon Society chapter—and go out with experienced members. Many birding groups conduct periodic counts of species and individual birds in their area, and participating in one of these events can be exciting and profitable in terms of additions to the list.

Some birders specialize, and so the young watcher may want to work mainly on shorebirds, ducks, birds of prey, owls, or the many species of sparrows. But specialist or not, the youngster who has become adept at sighting birds and looking closely enough to differentiate among similar species will have gained important observing and analytical skills.

#80. Observe something and keep a record on a daily basis

IDEA #80. Observe something and keep a record on a daily basis—your weight, the temperature at breakfast, the number of cars parked on your block at a particular time of day, the number of times your teacher says a particular word over a two-week period…. Make a graph and look for patterns.

If scientific genius is “ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration,” as Thomas Edison said, much of the sweat equity in progress has come from careful, regular observation and record-keeping. Extraordinarily, it is the highly disciplined management and analysis of disease records, rather than lab work with microorganisms, that has led to the understanding of the causes of many epidemic diseases, and the laws of planetary motion are a product of the detailed recording of planetary positions by Tycho Brahe; Kepler and Newton drew upon such records to derive mathematical principles, and Newton applied these principles to the study of gravity.

Modern science depends on detailed quantitative record-keeping, and much of the application of computers in science is in the service of developing statistical models. The young scientist who sets about the precise recording of observed data is, therefore, participating in a long and fundamental scientific tradition.

The fun of this activity, of course, is to begin to discern patterns. If the recorder makes a point of recording several possibly related kinds of data—temperature and barometric pressure, say, or the total number of goals scored in each game each day in a professional ice hockey league and the number of spectators in each arena—interesting correlations may appear. The task of the scientist, of course, is to determine whether these correlations are in fact the result of some natural or psychological forces or merely coincidence. The number of fish caught by Aunt Minnie each day may or may not have anything to do with what Aunt Minnie had for breakfast, but careful observation of these two phenomena might yield significant data.

As with any form of observation, regularity, precision, and the number of data points generated are the key to meaningful results, and so this activity also involves a certain amount of self-discipline before there can be any analysis. The more consistent the manner of the observation and recording, the more useful the data will be.

#73. Build a “machine” out of junk and duct tape or other cheap and easy-to-find materials

IDEA #73. Think of some sillyor important, eventask that you have to do and then build a “machine” out of junk and duct tape (or other cheap and easy-to-find materials) that performs the task. You can decide to make the machine beautiful and well-crafted, or you can decide to make it utterly ridiculous—the more duct tape, the better!

The cartoonist Rube Goldberg was famous for designing “machines” of absurd complexity that accomplished everyday tasks, and today there is a rich tradition in both engineering and design in using unlikely materials and over-engineering to create simple machines—usually in fact a combination of the classical simple machines (inclined plane, wheel and axle, pulley, wedge, screw, and lever)—to do things that are either necessary and useful or in fact totally useless.

No material has lent itself more to the uses of amateur inventors and engineers than duct tape, the ubiquitous silver-gray fabric-based tape that seems to stick to everything, especially itself, and that has famously been reported to have been used to perform emergency repairs on everything from shoes to airplanes. A pair of good scissors, some sacrificial cardboard boxes and a few sticks of wood are all the raw materials a young engineer might need to create almost anything; if other materials are also at hand, even Rube Goldberg’s creations might only be a starting point.

This is the unlikely time to introduce to the youngster the concept of scientific elegance. Some engineers are naturally tidy in their work and have an inborn sense to design that makes everything they produce look somehow elegant—simple, clean-lined, neatly made. Elegant solutions in science, engineering, and mathematics combine simplicity and grace, without extraneous elements, and the quest for elegance in an activity like this reduces the Rube Goldberg aspects to a bare minimum.

duct-tapeOn the other hand, there is an exuberance in recognizing that anything made primarily of scrap and duct tape is in itself likely to be a assemblage of casually combined and inelegantly put together pieces, and that therefore a certain amount of extraneity is to be welcomed and even sought. Why not make the thing as baroque as possible, with added elements that have nothing to do with function but add whimsy to the form? If the object reminds one a bit of a rabbit, why not add long ears, whiskers, and a cotton tail?

This activity is about invention, but above all it is about allowing imagination and inclination to run a little wild. Elegant or not, the duct tape invention is part of great way to explore how things work and how they go together—learning a bit of physics and industrial design along the way.








#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.

Our Cure for Your “Summer Reading” Dilemma

The Interested Child was born as a list of activities put together by a couple of us working at a school in response to a heated discussion about what to assign for summer reading and how to hold students accountable.

Our thought was, Why not ask kids to have other kinds of learning experiences? Even if we’re not going to “check up on” them, we could just create a menu of ideas that might be fun and interesting–and educational in all the ways that we think are important.

So if your school is about to start the annual discussion of summer reading, or if you’re ready for a change, just download The Interested Child‘s list below and adapt it for your needs.

Or if you are the parent or guardian of an interested child, or if you work with interested children and want some ideas to keep them engaged and learning this summer, the The Interested Child‘s list might give you some inspiration.

You have seen some of these ideas in more detail here, and in the future you will see more of them–but this is the short version, suitable for distribution from your school, library, or organization website–or the front desk..

All we ask is that you mention us if you publish or adapt the document–but spread the word, and share the wealth!


#57. Look for patterns in nature—start by learning about Fibonacci numbers and then hunting for them

IDEA #57. Look for patterns in nature—start by learning about Fibonacci numbers and then hunting for them, both in nature and in man-made situations. What is the most surprising place you find a Fibonacci series?

There are innumerable patterns in nature, but few are quite so common or so startling as Fibonacci numbers. Leonardo Fibonacci, a 13th-century Italian mathematician, noted the property of a series of numbers 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 …, where the next number in the series is the sum of the two numbers preceding it.

Interesting to a mathematician, perhaps, but astounding when one notes the many ways in which nature enacts Fibonacci’s series. The number of seeds on a pine cone, the proportions of a chambered nautilus shell, the number of petals on a flower—all express the regular pattern of a Fibonacci series.

And while these number sequences are common, there are other patterns to be observed in nature—the number of leaves on a stem, the pattern of leaf alternation that separates False Solomon Seal (a shrub) from the real thing, the structure of insects, the times when certain birds sing, the relationship between the temperature of the water in a lake and the direction of the wind. The more closely one observes the natural world, the more the young scientist discovers order and symmetry and balance. The Fibonacci series is just one amazing example.

If the young observer is inclined to keep a journal of his or her “discoveries,” any science or mathematics teacher would be more than pleased to see and discuss the results.

#50. Acquire some kind of magnifying glass or pocket microscope and look at snowflakes, sand, dirt, or anything else that you think might be kind of interesting

IDEA #50. Acquire some kind of magnifying glass or pocket microscope and look at snowflakes, sand, dirt, or anything else that you think might be kind of interesting. Your food might be kind of an interesting place to start.

When Antonie van Leeuwenhoek “discovered” the miracle of optical magnification in the 17th century, he opened up an unseen world. Even relatively low degrees of magnification—ten to twenty times normal size, referred to as “power” and abbreviated as 10x to 20x—can reveal extraordinary and wholly unexpected details in the most common objects. Almost any piece of food, for instance, takes on a whole new appearance under magnification (and perhaps should not be the first subject of a squeamish eater’s attentions in this activity), and the surface of one’s own skin or even a hair has amazing facets and features. Even a dollar bill has secrets that unfold only to the viewer whose vision is aided by a strong lens.

A simple magnifying glass should be easy to find; a sewing supply store or a department store should offer a choice. For a few dollars more many hobby stores have specialized magnifiers, some with battery illumination, and specialty electronics and scientific supply stores have a variety of small scopes of 30 power or more that can be used to obtain stunning close-up views of grains of salt (whose cubical crystalline structure is clearly visible) or sand—or the anatomical details of a dead insect.

The next level of interest and investment in this activity involves the acquisition of a microscope. As with most optical technology, quality is proportional to cost, but it may be possible to obtain the use of a school microscope or a ‘scope belonging to an individual. The quality of the lenses, the strength of the lenses, and the source of illumination can vary dramatically, and it might be well for the novice microscope user to start by using prepared slides (of blood cells, fungal spores, dust, plant cells, to give some common examples) under the direction of a knowledgeable elder. Too much magnification can actually be a distraction, as the level of detail is so great that a sense of what is being viewed is utterly lost.

Wanting to see the tiny “essence” of things can become something of a compulsion, once the discovery is made that even smooth objects are in fact creviced and canyoned or that a drop of pond water can contain a myriad of life-forms. All such activity serves to train the observer in a kind of critical thought, to look beyond surfaces and to regard apparent clarity with some skepticism. What Leeuwenhoek gave the world his device can still provide intellectual sustenance for a curious youngster.

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