Science Skills

Last night I accompanied Archimedes The Younger to a Science Activity night at his elementary school. The topic was Simple Machines, and after a fairly long introduction we finally got down to the good part. Basically it was set up like Junk Yard Wars. Teams were formed, and each team was to use the “junkyard” of recyclables in the back of the room to construct a ramp which would roll a tennis ball the farthest. They only had 20 minutes to design and construct the contraption, and then there would be a competition.

It was interesting to watch the interaction of the team my son was on. The team was made up of a variety of kids ranging from second to fifth grade. And their interest level varied from “Why can’t we use the welder?” to “Is it snack time yet?” One boy, inexplicably named Valerie, grabbed a pencil and began to sketch out a tall steep structure. (Note to parents: if you are compelled to name your son Valerie, at least have the decency to write “Val” on his name tag when he signs in.) My son quickly noted this design would make the ball bounce, and modified it to a longer ramp with about a 45 degree incline. Good engineering instincts on that boy.

Then a couple of the other kids went shopping in the junkyard. One young girl, ironically wearing a shirt which said, “Who says shopping isn’t a sport?” came back with several choice pieces of material. The beauty of a team is that everyone has their strengths.

Valerie had now figured out how to make cardboard chutes out of some boxes, and Doug was working on cascading them to make his long ramp. This was a sweet setup as the chute shape would contain the ball and add structural strength to the unit. The shopper and her friend were busy building tall support towers by stacking containers, which would eventually support the chute. Divide and conquer – good strategy.

This left one little girl who so far had just been watching, waiting for her opportunity to jump in and do that thing she was born to do. The boys needed tape to patch their chutes together, and this girl had obviously been trained in the art of tape dispensing. Clearly she had wrapped numerous presents, and learned to conserve tape. For as the clock ticked, and the boys waited somewhat patiently, she doled out small half-inch pieces of masking tape. The boys did ask for larger pieces, and after a fashion, and a bit of head shaking, she grudgingly gave out a few pieces nearly an inch long. In the end, the chutes looked as if they had been shot with a masking tape gun. They were riddled with small snippets of tape, but despite my skepticism, the thing held together.

The chute was fitted to the towers and the rig was ready for competition. Oh, but wait, this is elementary school. So the “competition couldn’t have winners and losers. Hell, they didn’t even bother to measure the distance the balls traveled. They just praised all the designs in turn as the balls were launched. And while there were several good designs worthy of praise, there were also some profoundly awful conceptions. But no distinctions were made. Everyone was deemed to have done very well.

So on the way home we discussed the real outcome. The strengths and weaknesses of the different designs, what his team did well, what they could have done to make it better. He got praise he actually earned, and critique he could actually learn from. …And we laughed about Tape Girl.

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