Tag Archives: science

A School Invention Project

In 5th grade my primary teacher had each student in his class independently come up with an invention. Parents were allowed to help but it had to be mostly driven by the kids themselves. Mine was a golf putter with an aluminum tube attached to the side that could hold and deploy balls that would enable you to rapidly practice putting and assess the nearby ground. This was probably the kind of project that ultimately helped to propel me into the worlds I’m in now.

I only remember a few of the other kids’ inventions – mostly the ones that were really bad. Some kind of pizza turn table and a basketball hoop with a laundry basket mounted on the bottom. Makes me wonder what enabled and inhibited creativity in us back then.

DSC_0120DSC_0121 DSC_0138 DSC_0129Anyway I was reminded of all of this during our past winter holiday family outing when my 10 year old cousin and I deployed what we affectionately dubbed “the bowling stick” – a 2 meter long flimsy PVC pipe with a confusing, twisted assemblage of pipe parts and pads for chair legs attached to the bottom. It was the invention of my Aunt, who really intended it to be a low-impact Adaptive Bowling instrument that required a little more skill than a ramp that she and my grandmother could use. For my little cousin and I, however, it breathed new life into bowling like nothing else could have. Normally the game seems pretty predictable: you fling a ball down the lane, aiming for the center pin hoping to knock them all down… and after regular practice can get spares and strikes quite easily. There’s little in the way of thrilling competition or real athleticism involved, I get the sense that it’s more about having an easily interruptible game medium that can serve as a pseudo-escapist way to punctuate conversation.

Enter the stick. Neither one of us knew how to use this thing, and while it felt a little like hockey it was much harder to control the heavy ball. It was adjustable and you could use all kinds of techniques to send it down, amounting to a substantial amount of silliness and chaos. Anyway I thought it would make an excellent updated version of the 5th grade invention project:

  • First and foremost it could be used as an excellent excuse to teach physics and engineering – angles and spinning with the ball, bending and tensile strength of the stick, force created from different swing techniques , friction of various surfaces and so on.
  • As a kid I would have been pretty bored by talking about this kind of physics until we actually had to apply it! And that’s the beauty of this thing – you could take what you learned and attempt to make improvements to your technique and the actual construction of the device, and then observe and test them in an iterative and scientific method type fashion. What happens when you add more or different prongs on the end? Alter the wheels or put pads everywhere instead of just on the bottom?
  • A variety of models could be developed around each kind of ball propulsion technique, with advantages and disadvantages and instructors could help students to learn that it doesn’t have to just be about speed or efficiency. Perhaps the controlled-instability and unpredictability makes the game more fun. Might there be other improvements, like making it height-adjustable for multiple players or able to hook on to a table without falling over? How might the aesthetics alter the experience we have using the stick?
  • And this of course could build into other related projects: can we make a new off-shoot of bowling based on this stick? What makes a good game? What would it take to make a Kickstarter out of it? Do we need to create a video and how do we categorize and present the features or benefits? How can research data be collected about health impacts, possible damage to the floor or other issues that might come up?

Anyway just a thought. I’m not really qualified to be a full-time teacher for 10 year olds but if any of them want to come to the Fab Lab to pioneer a bowling stick, just tell them to drop me a line. I sent the same cousin home with an Arduino this year. $10 says she loses or breaks it, but maybe, just maybe, she’ll get to thinking about what to invent with it 🙂

From sexism in science to examining my own capacity for sexism

I’m glad the article focuses some on her positive impacts and solutions – those are what are most important to me 🙂 It’s a little worrisome though because this Ofek thing seems to be an instance of outright straight-forward disrespect and ‘ism’ – wound up into one moment and reply. I think a lot of it is more structural, persistent and crafty than that. Like, for instance, a lot of industries rely on participants who are essentially workaholics to be competitive to get limited positions and grants. This doesn’t seem bad at face value, but might exclude people who have alternative values – say, those who see the importance of having a family, collaboration through friendship in the workplace or doing engagement to bring in diverse perspectives, etc… Essentially a woman who wants to have a family or a person from a different culture who wants to take care of their grandmother or whatever gets penalized and this sort of thing feels like structural ‘ism’ to me. When we make our talking points mostly about people in white hoods we lose sight of the redlining.

I guess on the flip side I have no idea how to deal with resocializing men. I’m especially bad at connecting to and influencing guys who are sexist. In the overt ways I’d disagree with, anyway. Dudes really into violence and running over animals in pickup trucks and guys who think verbal expression of emotions is for weak people.

I mean I guess my definition of sexism is debatable – a friend once took the position that my suggestion that all people should have the capacity to be more assertive and rely on individual agency underscored an emphasis on a greater masculine narrative – from the one end I can suggest that girls should reclaim territory: to be a person who is ‘assertive’ and ‘confrontational’ shouldn’t be the turf of just men, but both genders, but on the other end it excludes alternative structures of interaction, such as trying to encourage everyone (but particularly men) to be more ‘passive’ or ‘reconciliatory.’ In other words what I see as an idealized social form (compassionate, informed, positive assertion) might be considered masculine and to suggest women need to match it might be sexist because I’m asking them to conform to the masculine norm. But if most did then it wouldn’t be a masculine norm anymore. I think she was mostly just mad at me for not really truly recognizing the costs and barriers that exist for women to do this (again, my ability to believe agency matters more than structure is not just optimistic, it is enabled by my vast swaths of privilege), but on another level I guess she could be right – I may just be sexist. Even if I just use positive encouragement (promote girls who are assertive) as my mode I’d end up marginalizing those who differ. Hell paying more attention to more attractive women than less attractive women is downright sexist and for me that’s in large part driven by hormones and decades of social conditioning – I do it automatically without thinking (but can choose to override it and do my best to do this). I probably have more sexism in me than I care to admit and therefore more ability to connect to other sexist men than I might realize but some of this stuff is so ingrained and nuanced that I have to make it a big soap box project to do it – and nobody wants that.  It really seems so radical. Like sure, I can recognize that genders are social constructions and try to convince people that we should move beyond them. But ain’t nobody gon understand that ish. Or maybe I just suck at explaining and convincing. Or maybe that’s better done through time and life exposure and not words.

Ah well, speaking of soap boxes that are about to crumple beneath my ego…


I’d like to make a comparison. Lego’s new Friends series, the robot workshop:

And “engineer” Barbie:

  • Which is “more sexist”?
  • What skills and perspectives does each of these toys encourage? Go with a venn diagram.
  • If we replaced the pink and purple with orange and green how would you feel about each?
  • Why do kids like some toys instead of others?

Bugs are scary

These days digital cameras can take pictures with downright breathtaking quality of color and detail. A sweet deal… but then someone had to go and take pictures of bugs close up and holy crap these guys are freaky looking! It’s actually pretty remarkable how intricate the features of a tiny little insect are, when you get right down to it. Anyway if you have a moment or two, find your nearest enemy and put one of these up as their desktop background:

More from Dalantech.

If you also happen to own a 5000$ camera you might try taking some pictures of bugs yourself, this guy gives some tutorials. He managed to get some of his pictures into National Geographic!

Books to Read: Warped Passages

My sister was reading “Vogue”:http://www.style.com/vogue/ the other day and happened upon an article about Professor “Lisa Randall”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa_Randall. Not only is she a triple tenured professor at “Princeton”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princeton_University, “MIT”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIT, and “Harvard”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard, a leading expert on “particle physics”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Particle_physics, “string theory”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_theory, and “cosmology”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmology, in “Time’s 100 Scientists and Thinkers”:http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/time100/article/0,28804,1595326_1595329_1615997,00.html for 2007, and author of “Warped Passages”:http://www.amazon.com/Warped-Passages-Unraveling-Mysteries-Dimensions/dp/0060531096/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1199318101&sr=8-1, she’s pretty good lookin’, too. I’ve been particularly interested in higher dimensions for quite a while. In addition to Warped Passages, which I just started, I suggest reading “The Fourth Dimension”:http://www.amazon.com/4th-Dimension-Toward-Geometry-Reality/dp/0395344204/ref=sr_1_21?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1199318341&sr=8-21, which is another great read.

How hot CAN the universe get?

Ever since learning about absolute zero (the temperature at which no heat remains in a substance), I always was curious as to whether there was an analogue on the toasty end of the spectrum. Is there a limit to how hot a temperature can exist? I never had a physics teacher who could answer that question, but the internet today “has done it”:http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a3_347.html:

“The highest possible temperature, called the Planck temperature, is equal to 10^32 degrees Kelvin. For comparison, the center of the sun bubbles along at 15 million degrees K (15 x 10^6); silicon can be created by fusion at 1 billion K (10^9).”

Thanks to “The Straight Dope”:http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a3_347.html for finally answering this question that has bothered me for years!