Operation Building and Unbuilding: Part One

Why not?
Let’s operate on Operation. Why not?

posted by Beret

Age Range: 7 and up

Things break all of the time at our house. Luckily I’m married to Mr. Fix-it, and very few weeks pass that we don’t put his title to the test. He has tackled the dishwasher, the dryer, the oven, the car, the disposal and–albeit reluctantly–the computer. That sort of tinkering is extremely helpful. When everything seems to be working, however, he finds something unbroken to fix. For example, he is constantly rewiring our home entertainment system so that, yet again, I don’t know how to turn on the TV or work the stereo. I find that irritating. He just finds it unbelievable that I can’t figure it all out myself.

Lately, I have been wondering: what was different about his upbringing that helped him to see the world through the eyes of an engineer?

I asked him what he did in his spare time as a child, and he proceeded to tell me a story about secretly removing the brakes from his bicycle and embarking on a variety of death-defying activities. He was twelve years old. This gave me pause. “You took off your brakes? How did you know how to do that?” “I didn’t,” he said, but that certainly didn’t stop him. He took everything apart: watches, clocks, whatever he could get his hands on.

I THINK THIS IS THE KEY.  Taking things apart is an excellent way to figure out how they work and how you might build or change them. It’s not just my humble opinion, either. I started doing a little research, and discovered all kinds of resources and programs that include tinkering as a way to develop conceptual development.   

So now I want to take some stuff apart.

I also want to start small–like not with the car–and I want my kids to come along for the ride.

All you really need is a game or toy that requires batteries, safety goggles, and a little patience. The Exploratorium in San Francisco has great workshops for taking toys apart, and you can swap parts with other kids in order to make your stuffed kitty “moo.” That looks awesome, but you may not live nearby, and even if you do, it’s closing for a while.

Personally, I wanted to start at home, so I picked up the game of Operation at Target last week for eight bucks.

All you need to begin:

©2012 Beret Olsen
©2012 Beret Olsen

I got the idea for this activity from Exploring Energy with TOYS:  Complete Lessons for grades 4-8, put out by the National Science Foundation. The safety goggles are probably overkill, but fun to wear.


1.  Make sure game is turned off and batteries removed. Use a box cutter or an xacto knife to cut the game board off the pegs.

Step One    ©2012 Beret Olsen
©2012 Beret Olsen

2.  Gently pull off the board. Don’t worry. You can always pop the board back on later and play the game again.

©2012 Beret Olsen
©2012 Beret Olsen

3.  Replace batteries and turn the game on to the most sensitive setting (aka, the “advanced” setting, #2) . Start poking around with the tweezers to figure out how the game works. Well, I know YOU probably know. But let your kid figure it out. Have them poke all over and observe what happens. What sets off the light and buzzer? Why?

©2012 Beret Olsen
©2012 Beret Olsen

4.  Introduce and identify the parts of an electrical circuit: energy source, energy path, and energy receivers.

The energy source is the battery.

The energy path is made up of the tweezers, metal pieces of the board (NOT the plastic or cardboard), and the wires.

The energy receivers are the bulb and the buzzer.

Tune in next time when we try making circuits of our own!

Some additional resources:

Unbuilding, by David Macaulay

The New Way Things Work, by David Macaulay

Added bonus:  an adult book recommendation.

I wanted to visit the Duomo in Florence, Italy, and to prepare myself, I read Brunelleschi’s Dome:  How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, by Ross King. Okay, so it’s not about electrical circuits, but it IS about the way things work, and it is absolutely fascinating. What really struck me was that it wasn’t possible to do what he did when he started his project. He was constantly inventing new tools and techniques throughout the process, in order to make his masterpiece. I could write a review, but instead, I stole one from someone on Amazon:

Book Description

Release Date: November 1, 2001
By all accounts, Filippo Brunelleschi, goldsmith and clockmaker, was an unkempt, cantankerous, and suspicious man-even by the generous standards according to which artists were judged in fifteenth-century Florence. He also designed and erected a dome over the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore-a feat of architectural daring that we continue to marvel at today-thus securing himself a place among the most formidable geniuses of the Renaissance. At first denounced as a madman, Brunelleschi literally reinvented the field of architecture amid plagues, wars, and political feuds to raise seventy million pounds of metal, wood, and marble hundreds of feet in the air. Ross King‘s captivating narrative brings to life the personalities and intrigue surrounding the twenty-eight-year-long construction of the dome, opening a window onto Florentine life during one of history’s most fascinating eras.

Author: Beret Olsen

Beret Olsen is a writer, teacher, and photo editor for 100 Word Story. She loves toast, the Oxford comma, and all your comments and questions.

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