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.    Continue reading “Operation Building and Unbuilding: Part One”

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Relief Maps

©2012 Beret Olsen

posted by Beret

Age Range:  5 to adult

Have you ever spear-headed a flour-paste project that festered, rather than drying properly? I’ve set up fans to speed the drying process. I’ve tried adding salt as a preservative–to no effect. I’ve even added a little cinnamon to help mask any ensuing aroma. Unfortunately, I now associate that spice with a classroom closet full of rotting papier-mâché planets.

Still, kids love doing these sorts of projects, so I was gearing up for another potentially malodorous round of flour dough relief maps. Luckily, someone revealed to me the secret of all such three-dimensional projects:  plaster cloth.    Continue reading “Relief Maps”

Book Recommendation: A Whole Nother Story

posted by Beret

Title:  A Whole Nother Story

Author:  probably not anyone named Dr. Cuthbert Soup

Reading level:  4th grade and up

Genre:  Unsure

Quite frankly, it is hard to know just how to categorize A Whole Nother Story. The Library of Congress has filed it under “inventions and spies,” as well as a host of perplexingly random and uninteresting categories such as “moving (household),” and “automobile travel.”

In my opinion, such an unorthodox story begs a far less rational sort of description. Let’s begin instead with an abridged list of ingredients.

Inside A Whole Nother Story you will find:

  • “three attractive, polite, and relatively odor-free children”
  • a time machine which may or may not work
  • an evil villain named Mr. 5
  • an international super spy and his monkey-sucking machine
  • a hairless dog with psychic abilities

                       AND

  • a sock puppet named Steve.

If the above list intrigues you and/or some of the small people in your life, I can’t imagine why you are still reading this inane blurb instead of running out to get your grubby hands on your own copy.

Now, for those of you who may need a bit more cajoling:    Continue reading “Book Recommendation: A Whole Nother Story”

The Aftermath: Repurposing Those Sweet Treats

©2012 Beret Olsen

posted by Beret

Age Level:  Any

I’m a huge fan of Halloween.  It’s a festive, fabulous holiday without the baggage and stressful travel.  Sure, I had my candy stolen once or twice, and there were a couple of costume disappointments, but the pure pleasure of carousing after dark as a child–dressed as my alter ego–outweighed any of that.  I love the whole wacky mess of it.

Except.

I’m not so wild about the morning after.  Everyone is tired and cranky.  Work and school go on as usual.  And then, there’s the CANDY.  What to do with that boatload of sugar?    Continue reading “The Aftermath: Repurposing Those Sweet Treats”

Duct Tape Wallets

©2012 Beret Olsen

posted by Beret

Age Range:  7 and up, although kids under ten will need a fair amount of assistance getting their tape strips to behave.

Perhaps due to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s famed duct tape alert, I started buying duct tape long before I knew what to do with it besides tape stuff together.  I had rolls and rolls of it just laying around, waiting for something to break.  Thank goodness a friend of mine was trapped in her house with two kids for several very long and rainy days.  She’s the one who gave me a few ideas to get started.

The great thing is that duct tape is like legos.  You can make anything with it, from flip flops to prom dresses.    Continue reading “Duct Tape Wallets”

How to extract DNA from fruit the crazy easy way

©2012 Beret Olsen

posted by Beret

Age range:  8 and up

DNA is a fascinating realm to investigate, but one I assumed was out of my league…that is, until my nine-year-old heard about extracting DNA from strawberries and wanted to try it at home.

There are a variety of approaches outlined on the web, often calling for thermometers, holding baths, denatured alcohol, and/or soap containing a very particular agent (EDTA). We tried several approaches, using different recipes, brands, and timing, and were consistently and remarkably unsuccessful. We kept at it, though, and when we finally got the extraction procedure to work, it was embarrassing how easy it was.  Apparently the more intricate the process, the less likely you are to succeed.    Continue reading “How to extract DNA from fruit the crazy easy way”

Cabbage Juice Chemistry!

© Beret Olsen, 2012

posted by Beret

Age Range:  6 and up

Ah, chemistry.  How boring it can be when reduced to a textbook, a monotonous lecture, or a multiple choice test.  But chemistry has its roots in ancient alchemies–the attempts to make gold and elixirs for healing or immortality.

Watching my kids in action, I think there may be an innate drive to mix substances and solutions to create something new. They began brewing their own potions long before we read Harry Potter.  We started simply.  Whenever I cleaned out the cupboards or the refrigerator, I would give the girls a giant (and unbreakable) bowl, wooden spoons, and safety goggles, and send them out into the backyard to make some new concoction.  Stale or moldy food made for some pretty intriguing science projects.  I also had the girls throw in any candy they might find from the back of cupboards or old birthday goodie bags.  It was fun and got rid of a lot of junk.

When they tired of potions and wanted something more ‘scientificky’ to mix and do, I did a little research and discovered that juice made from a red cabbage is a natural indicator to determine whether a substance is acidic or basic.  The process is very simple and straightforward, and the results are colorful and satisfying.    Continue reading “Cabbage Juice Chemistry!”