Tag Archives: STEM

Project-Based Learning :: Physics :: Week 3

We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Week 1 and Week 2.

Catapult prototype, made by A.

Catapult prototype, made by A. One of the three nine-year-old boys…

I needed to wait awhile before writing this post because my initial reaction to last week’s class was a feeling of frustration. It seemed as if there wasn’t much learning going on, but I knew that I needed to step back from my current feelings and let them digest so that I could see what really was happening.

There was learning. Lots of learning. It just didn’t look like you would expect on week three. It looked a lot like week two, but with a little less enthusiasm. They were still experimenting – often with some of the same things that they made last week. I think that many of the parents (myself included) expected there to be a clear path of progress, rather than the messy trial and error that is reflected in the construction of knowledge.

Why do we adults expect learning to progress so quickly and thoroughly? Is it because we have less time? Is it because we feel the pressure to “get things done?” I know I do. A lot. I have to constantly remind myself that the learning my kids will do (on their own) will far outpace the direct instruction I give them…if only I can be very, very patient and wait for the breakthrough. Sometimes I can’t give them the time needed to do that, but for a class like this, that’s the whole point. We need to give them the time to goof around, play and think about their ideas – while still helping them to stay on track.

I think that’s the key – making sure they stay on track. And, if we’re being completely honest here – I think I failed a bit as a facilitating mentor this past week. I fell into the “parent” role and was chatting with my other parents. Oh, it is so nice to chat with other homeschooling parents from time to time. But, not during class. So, next week, we’ll move into a more secluded area where we can focus and not be so distracted by other things. Well…I think that wraps up my personal “lessons learned” from this week, so it’s onto the projects!

Catapult Building – group of three 9-year-old boys
Last week, these boys were building prototypes and despite a Google Hangout meeting later in the week, they were still undecided as to what path they wanted to take next. They decided to keep making prototypes and then to choose one to focus on and build out of wood. Yep. Wood.

Catapult prototypes made earlier in the week out of popsicle sticks.

Catapult prototypes made earlier in the week out of popsicle sticks.

A trial catapult (and ultimate design dismissal).

A trial catapult (and ultimate design dismissal) that used air pressure to launch the “weapon”

These boys were enjoying playing with their catapult designs but were less likely to build new ones and seemed a bit lost with what their next step should be. They definitely wanted to try out some different designs, but none of them had done any research or found any other books or web sites. It was if they thought the ideas would just come to them via tinkering. It’s not a bad way to construct knowledge, but it does take a lot longer and it is very easy to fall off the path of progress. I think this would have been less of an issue if we were in a dedicated space – full of books, computers and supplies.

That being said, I re-read their words to them about making a decision and they all decided to go with a design that RC had found online and made earlier in the week. Although his prototype didn’t last the week (oh, 9-year-old boys), they had all seen it during the online chat and all agreed to move forward with that design.

Their decision for the following week is to each build the catapult using the instructions and figure out how to “scale” it up next week. Research required…which means I’m bringing my computer so they can figure it out in class.

The Gravity Girls, (ages eleven and barely eight)
These girls followed up with some more experiments on gravity and had some “failures” as well. I’ve been noticing that many of the problems we encounter comes from not having the proper materials on hand. Despite our best efforts to bring what they need, sometimes the materials don’t work out and you need something similar, but not quite the same. This post on space makes a lot more sense now.

Gravity experiments

Gravity experiments

Regardless, the girls were reading, tinkering and taking good notes. They decided that next week they needed heavier weights and taller container for their experiments to work properly. They also need to remake the paper clown out of an index card because he was too big.

Taking notes -- handwriting and spelling practice without having to make them do it!

Taking notes — handwriting and spelling practice without having to make them do it!

Catapult Building – group of two boys (ages 5 and 6)
These two continued to make a catapult out of tongue depressors, based on the picture on the front of this book. It was interesting to see them work out ways to adapt the design – what to use for the wood cylinders – dowels or pencils? They also realized that they needed the hand drill to drill holes to connect their non-sharpened pencils to the catapult. I asked how they were going to connect it to the sides and this was their answer, so we’re going to let them have a go at it next week. This is all part of the process of learning – especially for five and six.

The frame is almost ready.

The frame is almost ready.

Windmills and Another Catapult
We have two other projects going on in class, but I didn’t get great pictures of them, nor did I have a good chance to interact and help guide these two boys. N was steadily working on his windmill design and would have kept working if he hadn’t run out of glue sticks.

E was not around last week, but had chosen to do catapults as well and had a blast making one and shooting off pom poms. As a 7-year-old, he is on the cusp of being perceived as “too old to just tinker,” but still a little too young to be expected to create an elaborate presentation on his own. It might be a challenge in the coming weeks to help him go further with his project, but hopefully seeing the older boys will inspire him.

With so many kids doing different projects, I’m finding it difficult to effectively facilitate and be “the record-keeper” for each group. I really want to help the kids to follow their own path, but they are still kids and need guidance, reminders and written documentation to demonstrate their thought processes. We will be treading this line in the next few weeks as we try and help them to dig deeper with their learning and push themselves to discover new ideas.

E's rapid-fire catapult

E’s rapid-fire catapult

To keep reading about self-directed physics, check out PBL – Windmill Presentation – Week 4.




Learning about Physics – PBL – Week 2

We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Week 1.

Ronan tests out a spoon catapult that he made.

RG tests out a spoon catapult that he made.

I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am about the projects, tinkering and knowledge construction that has been happening since last week. I feel that it’s too early for me to make bold declarations, but I will say that I think project-based learning works better in a group setting than at home. At least for the elementary-aged child. That’s all I have experience with and it might change as the kids get older, but right now the energy level and excitement that all of the kids bring to class fuels everyone else…even though their projects might be different. It’s a fabulous sight to behold.

In order to keep this post from becoming a veritable novel, I am trying to limit the discussion and reflections to just a few parts of each project. Even with another mom helping, I definitely think there were things that I “missed.” And perhaps that’s okay. Only time will tell.

Catapult Building – group of three 9-year-old boys
These boys decided early on that they wanted to build a catapult (it was one of the suggested projects, after all and what boy can resist that)? After some research last week and some playful discoveries on their own, they came together this week and decided to each make a few prototypes.

Three boys...three different designs.

Three boys…three different designs.

Catapult protoype made by Andrew.

Catapult protoype made by A.

Ryan tinkered with this design and added some force.

RC tinkered with this design and added some rubberband force.

Catapult Building – group of two boys (ages 5 and 6)
This is by far the sweetest group of kids – ever! And, I only say that because my 6-year-old is one of them. No, seriously, it is really cute, and yet amazing, to watch these two as they struggle to construct knowledge about simple machines in a unique way. After reading about pulleys and checking out this book from the library, the boys decided to reconstruct the picture on the front – using popsicle sticks, masking tape, plastic spoons and rubber bands.

A catapult prototype built by Greyson.

A catapult prototype built by G.

Testing out a theory - a self-made rubberband catapult/slingshot...every boy's dream. Made by Calum.

Testing out a theory – a self-made rubberband catapult/slingshot…every boy’s dream. Made by C.

Experiments on Gravity – two girls (one 11-year-old and one almost 8-year-old)
As often happens with a homeschool group – there seems to be a large number of boys and not so many girls. There’s a judgmental statement in there somewhere about the state of education, but I’ll let it pass for now. These girls had a plan, which I think was devised in week one, and they were doing a fabulous job of carrying it out. They each had checked out books from the library on gravity and were conducting various experiments to learn more about it. Although we did our best to bring supplies to play with in our borrowed space, there were still a number of materials that they needed. However, they made some concrete plans to conduct experiments on their own and to continue the trial and error at the next class meeting.

Gravity experiments are a great way to test out the concept of gravity.

Gravity experiments are a great way to test out the concept of gravity.

Building a Windmill – one ten-year-old boy
After speaking to this child’s mom, I confirmed that N did all of the research, sketching and designing on his own. (His mother did give him some reminders – he is still ten)! I am beyond impressed with the path that he is on to create a windmill out of sticks. He was so focused that I didn’t spend much time observing him and I wished I had. He didn’t need any help, but I definitely missed an opportunity to watch the process of “flow” in action.

Hand sketches made by Nick.

Hand sketches made by N.

Hand-drawn and labelled by Nick.

Hand-drawn and labelled by N.

Starting to build a windmill with sticks.

Starting to build a windmill with sticks.

At the end of our time – and when you could tell some of the kids were getting hungry – I made a point to visit all of the groups and asked them to tell me their plans for next week. I wrote these plans down on a clipboard that I had left at each group table. While some of the groups were keeping their own notes, I knew that some were not. By leaving out a notebook and writing down their observations and plans, we can ensure that the adults have the supplies that the kids need – and if they get stuck at the next meeting we can read their words back to them.

To keep reading about their progress, click on Physics & Projects – Week 3.




Book Review :: Batteries and Bulbs II

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published every Friday. These reviews will cover computer programming books aimed at children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

From Batteries and Bulbs II - make a street light

From Batteries and Bulbs II – make a model street light

Ages 7 and up
Education Development Center. Batteries and Bulbs II: An Electrical Gadget Suggestion Book. Elementary Science Study. McGraw Hill: New York, 1969.
This very old, musty-smelling book has been loads of fun for me these past few weeks. In fact, as I picked it up from the library (on Interlibrary Loan – which means they had to borrow it from another library), the librarians were chuckling at my gleeful gasp as I grabbed it and started looking it over.

From the late 1960s

From the late 1960s

During the first week of my Tinkering class, my kids wanted to know more about electricity and batteries and how to make more things work. And I will admit, I am not a good “discover it by accident” kind of person. I like to have some resources and I like to try it the “safe” way and then I want to get at it and tinker. I am impatient. I’m trying to fix that. Truly.

This book and its predecessor, Batteries and Bulbs, were recommended by the Exploratorium as a resource for kids who were interested in learning more about circuits. Although I didn’t get to look at Batteries and Bulbs, this second book offers some extensions to our homemade circuit blocks. And, it has some really basic designs with items that would have been found in the 1960s – like creating a connection with a cut away piece from a tin can. (Oh, the Tetanus horrors)!

Love that there is NO mention of going to RadioShack for parts!

Love that there is NO mention of going to RadioShack for parts!

Since I wasn’t able to get Batteries and Bulbs I or II at my local library, I did pick out a few juvenile books on electricity. I found this book quite helpful. It was simple, but not boring, and nicely illustrated.

How to make a homemade bulb holder.

How to make a homemade bulb holder.

Learning about Physics :: A Project-Based Learning Approach

We are quite fortunate to be part of a homeschooling group that’s willing to try new things. This group of five families also thinks that it’s important for children to learn and play together. Although our backgrounds and choices are not always the same, we all value self-direction and creativity.

Learning about space exploration - a self-guided project, by R, August 2014.

Learning about space exploration – a self-guided project, by R, August 2014.

Hence, they were all willing to go along with the idea of offering a project-based learning class during our co-op class meetings for this Fall. I have done some student-led, project-based learning with my own children and truly value the deep learning that comes as a result. I have also participated in the PBH Master Class and have read the accompanying book and I know that it can work…if you are patient, keep your mouth shut, record your observations, and ask lots of questions.

A homemade book on the history of space travel...in progress...from last year.

A homemade book on the history of space travel…in progress…August 2014.

Plus, it’s been more than a year since I started down that road, so I feel a bit more confident in letting things develop and “going with the flow” with regards to student-directed learning.  After much discussion and haphazard explanations (on my part), our group decided to set the topic – physics – and set a timeline (6-8 weeks, depending on what the kids need).

Most of the children in our group, ranging in ages from 5 – 11, are new to project-based learning so I wrote up a general description of expectations. I even included a number of wide-ranging sample projects that they could choose, but were not obligated to do so. In true project-based learning, you do not even suggest projects, but many of them were used to completing pre-designed curriculum and I was afraid they would get frustrated before they even began. I shouldn’t have worried.

Can you make a structure that can support a textbook using only 10 gum drops and 20 toothpicks?

Can you make a structure that can support a textbook using only 10 gum drops and 20 toothpicks? Experiments on force!

For the first class, and to spark our enthusiasm about the different aspects of physics, I brought this book and we (briefly) discussed it in class. Rather, my kids were eager to show it off (it does have pop-ups after all), but everyone was excited to get to the experiments that we had brought. Each family prepared an experiment (or two or three) that reflected a different aspect of physics.  The emphasis was less on “displaying” your experiment and more on letting others experience how science works. Of course, I brought my circuit blocks.

Working on solving the problem!

Working on solving the problem!

Not only did many of the kids bring their own ideas to the projects, but by bringing a physics experiment, many had already learned about some aspects of physics. And, they were happy to explain how and why it worked the way it did. All on their own…often without any adult prompts.

Experiments on magnetism - how poles repel, making an electromagnet and creating a temporary magnet.

Experiments on magnetism – how poles repel, making an electromagnet and creating a temporary magnet.

After spending an hour and a half working with the different experiments, the kids went off into the library to do some research. We had reserved a meeting room for this first class, so we would have an easy transition to library resources.

Even though I had done this before, it’s still hard to resist the urge to make suggestions and try to guide them to a more “educational” project. I can’t say I was thrilled when almost all of the boys chose the “sample” project of building a catapult (though, I should have known that would appeal to them). However, they are working in groups and will be learning to collaborate. In addition, once they build it they’ll have to figure why it works so they can teach it to the other kids (and adults).  Next time, I would probably give general suggestions on the “assignment” sheet and offer less specific examples.

My boys inadvertently made catapults while working on another project…it’s on their minds.

As the kids were gathering books, I asked questions to see what they were thinking about…and to ensure that we have the supplies they need for our meeting next week. So far there’s a great need for rubberbands, sticks and perhaps a complicated pulley-system. I know that my boys were thinking about their project all week, so I’m excited to see how things go for our next meeting. Will everyone have the supplies they need? Will the adults be able to figure out what the kids need – without offering suggestions? Will we be able to work through the group conflicts? I think so. I hope so. And, if not, then we’ll learn something too.

Check out the next post to see how the group is progressing.

The Brick Chronicles :: Lego® Feeder Machine

The Brick Chronicles feature unique creations made with Lego® bricks. Hopefully you, and the children in your life, will find them as inspiring as I do!

An almost complete real-life feeder. Made by R, age 9 (with a little help from Dad).

An almost complete real-life feeder. Made by R, age 9 (with a little help from Dad).

This week’s Lego® build is a pretty awe-inducing sight. My 9-year-old and his dad discovered the 3-D digital models posted by this man and were quite inspired as a result. As with many of the projects that happen in our house, usually once someone shows a little bit of interest, an adult will often offer a casual suggestion, observation or pose a question which usually propels a slow Saturday into a very active and creative one.

After watching the following 10-second video featuring the 3-D digital feeder, someone wondered if it could be made in person, perhaps with legos®?

The process began by intensely watching the video for inspiration and was followed by a sketched out design by Dad (to prevent the take over of Dad’s computer during the rest of the afternoon).

The 9-year-old wanted to build "from the picture in his head," but Dad insisted on a quick sketch.

The 9-year-old wanted to build “from the picture in his head,” but Dad insisted on a quick sketch.

Then, our eldest child was off and running. He grabbed a motor and battery pack from the Simple and Motorized Mechanisms set and began the tedious process of trying to bring his design to life.

Starter Design

Starter Design

After a long time of work and a pretty good design, Dad was called in to help make the final push to completion (and to focus on some of the “detail” work). Our young engineer isn’t quite concerned (yet) about how his project looks – just how it functions. He’s nine. He has some time to learn.

After coming out for a few consultations with Dad, he would happily return to his “tinkering” studio to continue work on his model. Regardless of his finished product, we were thrilled that he spent a few hours building and reshaping a design of his own – and more importantly, he was enthralled with the process too.

Marker Bots :: How We Did It

In case the “how to” guide from The Exploratorium (PDF or Instructables)  isn’t detailed enough, I thought I would share how I facilitated our scribble bot experience. Don’t mistake this as the only way to present this activity…just our way.

Scribble Bots - Take 2.

Scribble Bots – Take 2.

1.Gather your materials.
You want to encourage as much self-discovery and creativity as possible, so gather as many craft/office supply items as you have around the house. It doesn’t matter if you can’t figure out how they might be used, your children will surprise you.

Supplies needed:
– markers
– single AA batteries
1.5-3 V battery with wires attached*
hot glue stick, cut into various lengths**
– masking tape (or painters tape)
– thick rubber bands (that hold together broccoli)
alligator clips (in case your wires break) or for extra reach
– recycled containers, plastic cups, strawberry baskets, etc.
– twist ties, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, paper clips, clothespins, mini-cocktail umbrellas, etc.
– newspaper (or big paper, old cardboard boxes) to scribble on

* There might be other places to buy these from, but many of the electronic places (Radio Shack) sell them without the attached wires. You have to solder them on yourselves. If you aren’t up for that, order a bunch of these from Kelvin since they are so cheap, but the shipping is expensive. Plus, the wires pop off pretty easily and you might want some backups.

**We made our counterweight with a hot glue stick, but other suggestions includes balsa wood and playdough. All of these things can be stuck to the motor pretty easily by hand.

marker_bot_suppliesAt this point, you may want to make a few examples (see how to below) for the kids to understand the concept of a scribble bot. Be sure and make all sorts of different examples since the kids will often try and mimic your creations before moving onto their own designs.

Some supplies - paper cups, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, etc.

Some supplies – paper cups, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, etc.

2. Prepare your environment.
In this case, our environment was the dining room table. While the kids were playing after lunch, I cleaned off the table, laid down newspapers and butcher roll paper and brought out all of the markers, odd bits and clean recycled containers I could find. I’m not sure if this means we have a crafty household or are leaning toward pack-ratishness, but I had all of these materials on hand.

I put the smaller supplies into baskets (or bowls) that were easy for us to access. Each had a space to test their creations. There were two rolls of masking tape between the four of us. You need at least one roll for every two students.

Prepared table, a short video of other kids' bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

3. Place a battery, motor and thick rubber band in front of each chair. Call the kids.

The first thing that you want the kids to discover is how to make the motor work with the battery. See if they can figure it out. Be patient. Very patient. Ask questions until they get it.

If they are getting frustrated, show them how to hold the wires on either side of the battery to make a compete circuit. Add the rubberband around the battery to hold the wires in place. You now have an easy way to turn your motor on and off.

Save the bands that are wrapped around fresh broccoli

Save the bands that are wrapped around fresh broccoli

The wires on the battery are a bit flimsy and can easily break off from the kids pulling too much or from the vibration of the motor. One option was to purchase small heat-shrink tubes (for electronics) that can be found at hardware stores and use a hair dryer or lighter to shrink them onto your wires. I used a lighter and didn’t get as close to the motor as I should so they still popped off, but a hair dryer (or heat gun) should do quite nicely. Or, get yourself some alligator clips/leads and use those when the wires snap off.

4. Show them the examples or watch a video. Or don’t.
There’s a lot of debate about whether to show examples or just hand them a motor and some markers and just suggest that they make a bot that scribbles. You decide.

My kids and I watched a video from my course and they started out copying the design of some of the kids from the Exploratorium, but then moved on and modified or made their own creations as they gained confidence. You can see what we made here and here. You can always do a web search to find more examples.

5. Add your counterweight.
The hot glue stick is meant to be the counterweight to propel the motor and thus create a scribbling bot. The kids will need to experiment with many different sizes of weights, angles of markers, etc.

Let the child decide which way to add the glue stick to the motor. Push the hot glue stick onto the motor (while it’s off). An adult’s muscle may be needed for this part.


If the wires break off, use wired alligator clips to connect to the battery.

6. Design the bot.
Let them go and design away. Resist the urge to help them or fix it for them. If you see that something is obviously not going to work – that’s okay. Let them do it anyway. As long as they aren’t harming themselves (or the furniture), it will be a fabulous lesson in testing and re-testing…not to mention a good dose of growth mindset with regards to trial and error. Feel free to step in if you see tears on the horizon. You don’t want them to be frustrated, but you do want it to be their experience.

7. Listen.
Listen as your child describes their bot. Ask them about their design and their thought process. “Why did you decide to add the tape there? Your marker color choices are very interesting…how did you decide on those colors?”

8. Reflect. Later.
A few days later…or the following week, casually bring up the activity and discuss ways that you might do things differently. Are there any other things in your house that you could turn into a scribble bot? How else might you use a motor and battery? How is your fan powered? Your alarm clock powered? etc. What other everyday items use batteries?

Want to try again? Do you think we could work with watercolors or oil pastels? Do you think we could make a special type of pattern? The possibilities are endless.

Daddy's scribble bot made a pretty design.

Daddy’s scribble bot made a pretty design.

The end of our second time making scribble bots - this time we experimented with crazy designs...that didn't always work.

The end of our second time making scribble bots – this time we experimented with crazy designs…that didn’t always work.

Update: For those teachers that want to incorporate more free-form activities, but aren’t sure they can justify the time, check out this middle school science teacher’s post. He has some ideas on how to encourage scientific inquiry – with a purpose.

Good luck and happy creating! If you make a bot, post a link in the comments for everyone to see…


Play = Healthy Brain

Playing is something that we have always encouraged our children to do – it keeps them entertained, builds social skills and promotes creativity. Although sometimes they have a hard time remembering when it is appropriate to play (ahem…grocery store),  it is one of the many reasons that we have chosen to homeschool our children. There just wasn’t enough time devoted to unstructured play and free choice.  I have encountered the concept of play quite often in the last few weeks and it’s been on my mind daily as I work through my Tinkering class.  There is also much discussion and debate on the elusive definition of play and how it contributes to success (for humans and animals).


Tinkering with the playground water station at The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, FL.

Currently, I am reading the book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul by Dr. Stuart Brown. One of the studies that this medical researcher highlights was done by Dr. Marian Diamond. In the 1960s, she studied rats and found that rats who “played” more – lots of new toys and were interactive with other rats – had bigger and more complex brains. Hence, propelling the notion that babies and young children who are exposed to many different enriching experiences may become more well developed (and smarter) adults. Dr. Montessori found the same thing in the early 1900s during her observational studies.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Diamond’s research found that that this “enrichment” was equally beneficial for ALL brains, of ALL ages (which reminds me of the research on how learning a new language is beneficial for your aging brain).  Dr. Brown’s book also suggests that adults need to play as well – though, our play can look a little different – reading, knitting, watching our favorite TV show, etc. Yet, this probably explains why I have been having so much fun tinkering.

My handmade battery-powered bracelet - with wired mini-LEDs.

My handmade battery-powered bracelet – with wired mini-LEDs.

The inside of the bracelet - sewn with conductive thread and attached to a coin battery using parallel circuits.

The inside of the bracelet – sewn with conductive thread and attached to a coin battery (currently missing) using parallel circuits.

This past week, I was introduced to paper and sewn circuits. I love, love, love them. I am starting to comprehend circuitry in a way that I hadn’t with our previous experiments. I have so much more to write about using paper, fabric and conductive thread to create circuits, but I’m not done playing yet. I haven’t quite figured out how everything works and I don’t want to spend time writing about it – I want to get back and continue playing. 🙂

The bracelet is currently pinned, but I want to add metal snaps as a switch, but I need to figure that out first!

The bracelet is currently pinned, but I want to add metal snaps as a switch, but I need to figure out how to do that first!






Marker Bots

After working with the more “traditional” circuits, the good folks at The Exploratorium gave us our next assignment – make your own scribble bot.

Prepared table, a short video of other kids' bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

A prepared table, a short video of other kids’ bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

The kids and I ended up christening them “marker bots” as we felt that described our own creations a bit better. There’s some truth to that as many of the examples we saw used markers (since they scribble more easily), but as they tinkered, the kids began breaking out of the traditional “sample” bot and into new and uncharted territory.

My six-year-old had the most physical limitations as his dexterity isn’t nearly as well-developed as the two nine-year-olds. He had trouble getting the markers to stay and needed more help with setting up the battery. If I were to do this with lots of young students, I would do what many others have suggested and try soldering small washers onto the ends of the battery wires to make it easier to connect and disconnect in the broccoli band.

Six-year-old's beginnings

Six-year-old’s beginnings…yes, that’s a partial hot glue stick sticking out of the motor…used to propel the bot.

My sons’ friend was at our house and participated in our “maker” afternoon. I think he enjoyed himself and really learned to apply some growth mindset to his creation. Initially, he had a tough time deciding how to design his bot, but he eventually modified his design and took away the markers and created a moving robot. Success!

My nine-year-old jumped right in and loved that he could make a bot almost exactly like the same one we saw in the course video (strawberry baskets). After figuring that out, he went on to modify his creation and created a ledge for his bot to hold the marker caps.

All told, we spent a good hour and a half tinkering with our creations. A few days later, we revisited the single battery and motor combination and I tried to make a Lego car move (unsuccessfully) and my six-year-old, inspired by his friend’s creation, decided to make an airplane. Although his plane didn’t move he made multiple modifications and we did all sorts of battery and motor tests. Funny enough, everyone single boy who has come over has glanced at it with a “whoa…cool, dude” sort of look.  Needless to say, he is quite happy with it.

Yes, those are wheels from a rolling cabinet. It took the biggest stapler in the world to keep my mouth from suggesting smaller wheels.

Yes, those are wheels from a rolling cabinet. It took the biggest stapler in the world to keep my mouth from suggesting smaller wheels.

This assignment was one of the easiest to attempt and to complete. The entry materials are low — a 3V motor, a single AA battery and whatever craft supplies you have in the house. And, if you need more assistance, check out the Exploratorium’s online guide.

The end of our first work session.

The end of our first work session.


Tinkering – more than trial and error

As part of my Tinkering Class, the facilitators host a Google Hangout each week. Today, I finally had a chance to watch last week’s video. Wow.

This week’s guest was Edith Ackermann and I thoroughly enjoyed her insights and her enthusiasm for one of her topics of expertise – play. Ackermann* works at MIT and has studied under Piaget and Seymour Papert. Although this is a poor explanation, one could say that both of these theorists place a lot of value on hands-on activities and self-exploration.

Anyone who has studied the field of education has heard of Piaget, although it is much lesser known that he was first a follower of Dr. Montessori’s. (As a Montessorian…it has to be said)!  I have read a few of Papert’s papers on computers and children because of the work I do with Scratch. In fact, I was heavily influenced by this paper during the initial development of Code Camp’s structure and activity design (though I really need to read it again and tweak the class a bit more).

Regardless, I came away from the video reaffirming my idea that a “growth mindset” is important to success, but realized that I strongly agreed with Ackermann’s vision that tinkering should be more than just trial and error. Her point being that tinkering should encourage a person to view the problem and/or the solution from a different perspective.

Talk about an abstract concept to quantify and pin down. It reminded me of something I was told by a local French teacher. She was talking about the value of watching French Disney movies  – and obviously from the look on my face I wasn’t buying the initial educational usefulness.  Instead, she mentioned that it was another way to for them to “get it in their fingertips.”

As my educator husband and I have used that phrase many times over the years to describe really knowing something, I have just realized that this is probably what Ackermann is referring to when she mentions being able to see something from a different perspective. Only by being able to use/hear/encounter the French word in a different context are you truly going to be able to understand the problem and secure it in your long-term memory. Only by being able to see the problem/solution/object from a different perspective will you truly be able to understand it and then be able to change it and use it for something else entirely.


Or, maybe that’s what I “thought” I saw. Within psychology there doesn’t always seem to be a clear answer – most likely it’s purposely vague! Either way, it has me thinking and making small changes in the way I approach learning with my students. And, that’s a good thing.


* I can’t even begin to tell you how many papers and books that I have marked to read, suggestions from this course. Ackermann’s paper on “teachers as designers” is next on my list. As a Montessori-trained educator, I firmly believe in a prepared environment and I’m looking forward to seeing how she defines lesson design.

Tinkering, Creativity & New Ideas

I’m a bit behind in my Tinkering class. First, we were at the beach. The waves, boogie boarding and sand castles took up all of my attention. And, rightly so!

Second, the circuit board components took me a lot longer to craft. As in — many, many days of testing, stripping wires, running out to the hardware store, sanding blocks of wood, stripping more wires, being patient as the youngest child was too rough with the delicate wires, running back to the hardware store for another hot glue gun since ours chose that moment to break…and on and on and on. It was quite a process that I had to go through to end up with a small offering of circuitry. And, the silly part is that there’s so much more we want to add to our collection. We definitely aren’t finished with parts yet, but in the meantime, we’ve (mostly) figured out how everything works.

There's a large part of me that wants to scream at how long it took to complete these! But, the process and the experience was well worth it.

There’s a large part of me that wants to scream at how long it took to complete these!

There was also no “one-way” set of instructions for each component…and that was done on purpose by the course designers…I think. The short “how to” video from the course made everything look so easy, and while it wasn’t hard, it was time consuming. It was tinkering.

It’s not easy to create an online class that encompasses the very type of learning that they are discussing – constructivist. An impressive, yet frustrating feat. The value of having a hands-on facilitator nearby is fairly obvious.

But, rather than dwell on how long the process took, I would rather think about how much I’ve grown – not as a competent wire stripper or soldering iron expert. Most definitely not…I still need to practice and once the soldering iron did come out, the husband suddenly became very interested in “my” tinkering work!

My goal with this course was to become more comfortable with electricity – to allow my children and my summer camp students a chance to learn about circuits and batteries and bulbs with a hands-on approach. As a Montessori-trained educator and project-based homeschool user, I am quite used to being a facilitator rather than a director. There is a lot of time devoted to tinkering and exploring in my camps (and definitely at home).

Even so, I am still impressed with how much more I am able to look at things in a new way. As we were making room in the garage for the soldering iron set-up, I found the ceiling fan that my husband replaced last month. Rather than look at it and push it back into the corner, I gleefully grabbed it and wondered what sort of wires I could harvest from it. The boys were so excited that they could dismantle it, they grabbed their tool boxes and got to work.

The kids (ages 9 and 6) as they dismantle an old fan.

The kids (ages 9 and 6) as they dismantle an old fan.

I think a key part of tinkering is that it has the potential to lead to creativity. I like the idea that you are looking at something differently. That’s being creative – thinking about using something in a new way. It doesn’t have to be a brand new idea…just new to you.