Cool Inventions and the People Who Create Them
For this In the Classroom feature, I’m taking a broad view of the idea of “invention,” and including similar processes, such as discovery (science) and engineering, although each is unique.I’ve also tried to give a broad range of possible activities–some of them hands-on STEM experiences, others more literary, imaginative, or whimsical, to help you ignite the type of passion and curiosity that your students will be reading about in this month’s books.
Mind Your (and Your Students’) Metaphors
You can explore metaphors and our perceptions of discovery, while learning about a whole range of innovators, with Joyce Sidman’s Eureka! Poems about Inventors (illustrated by K. Bennett Chavez).
Especially with older students, you can begin by conducting the survey described and discussed in Kristen C. Elmore and Myra Luna-Lucera’s work, article, “Light Bulbs or Seeds? How Metaphors for Ideas Influence Judgments About Genius,” which examines how specific metaphors about discovery influence our perceptions of the not just of the process, but, perhaps surprisingly, of the discoverers and value of their achievements. After students respond to the survey (resources are provided in the article), let them in on the whole study and discuss their own responses in light of the researchers’ findings.
Then crack open Eureka! While enjoying the poems and thinking about the inventors, also of looking for the ways in which design, discovery, and invention are portrayed. In any poem, does Sidman seem to see the inventor’s experience as a “light bulb moment” (as the book’s title suggests), or as a process of “nurturing seeds?” Perhaps something else? Overall, does Sidman’s view of invention seem to favor one metaphor or the other? (Keep in mind that you can continue this discussion with respect to other books from this month’s list.)
Of course, after students read the stories in Eureka! it makes perfect sense for them to write their own poems about:
- Their own experiences of discovery or engineering insight
- Other innovators featured in this month’s books–Elon Musk or Isaac Newton, for example.
Dream Big—Really Big (and Then Maybe Engineer Something)
Readers of Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk & the Quest for a Fantastic Future will surely notice something that really makes Elon Musk stand out: his mission-driven ambition.
This guy dreams big.
Many people– including engineers and inventors–hope to make the world a better place; Musk wants to save humanity. This kind of high-impact calling can be a great motivator for future engineers and other innovators. Capitalize on the excitement of the Musk’s vision with one or more of these ideas:
- Invite your students to take a cue from Musk and envision something that would be really important to the well-being of people around the world. Begin a discussion with a grand question: If you could invent anything to make the world a much better place for everyone, what would you invent?
- Follow through with a brainstorming session around this question, encouraging students to think about ideas that might not seem realistic or possible right now. (If the class has already read the book, you can remind students that Musk’s ideas might not have seemed feasible at first, and, in fact, that lots of people have scoffed at his ideas.)
- Keep a running dream-list posted in the classroom and return to it from time to time. Invite students to keep “Dream Books,” where they focus on one or two ideas (or more) and write and sketch about how the dream might become a reality through some technology.
- You can expand on this idea by holding your own school version of the National Academy of Engineering’s “E4U” contest—minus the $25,000 grand prize– which (apparently) was last held in 2016. While the national contest is not open now, students can follow the contest rules to create 1-2 minute videos that aim to highlight a mega-engineering project related to one of their big dreams and, in the words of the contest guidelines, “expand the way people think about engineering and how it is involved in solving large-scale global challenges.” Check out winning entries, guidelines that you can use or adapt, and an explanatory (if outdated) video at the E4U contest site. Whether you run this as a contest or a showcase, this is a creative way to help students connect to Musk’s work and the importance of STEM in our world
Join Musk on His Mission (Sort Of)
For a more concrete experience, lead your students through engineering projects with connections to SpaceX rockets and Tesla’s electric cars, such as those featured in these resources from Design Squad Global:
- Mission: Solar System projects
- Motorized Car challenge: to emulate Tesla’s focus, include a target acceleration for the student-designed cars. (You might also see if you can use rechargeable batteries and a solar charger.)
Musk is all about the future. But there’s plenty of excitement in the past. Just check out the likes of Isaac Newton, whose experiences can add a bit of magic to how we think of early science and engineering.
Explore a Little Magic with Isaac Newton
From the outset of Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d, author Mary Losure explains to readers that in Isaac Newton’s time, some of what we now understand through science, such as chemical reactions and optical effects, seemed a lot like magic.
They still do. Have fun with this idea and explore the magical effects of our everyday world!
- Try open-ended exploration with chemistry as suggested by Losure in her supplementary On-Line Workshop for Isaac the Alchemist. (See the end of Lesson 3 for helpful teacher notes.)
- Adapt additional resources to create inquiry-based, surprising, and delightfully magical lessons. (Notes: I named these activities to spice things up; you won’t see these activity names in the resources. Also, see the safety reminder, below.)
Cast a Colorful Spell (magic trick begins at about the 7-minute mark)
Refraction Action: Disappearing Coin
Liquid Refraction Action 2: Liquid Invisibility Cloak!
Vanishing Glass (See Item 1 in the linked resource.)
- Finally, to continue the science-is-magical theme, and for a bit more fun and a creative literacy extension, you might have students write and perform scripts for a magic show, each student team building a story or act that uses one of the chemical reactions to create the “magic.”
As I find every month when I contribute to STEMTuesday, the books on the list inspire many more lesson ideas than space will allow. What inspires you? Leave a comment sharing new ideas or comments on what you see here!
*Safety Reminder: The magic/science activities are generally safe, but in the classroom, you should always be sure to follow the guidelines for safety and for modeling safe use of all chemicals. Check with your local science curriculum coordinator or the National Science Teachers Association Minimum Safety Practices and Regulations for Demonstrations, Experiments, and Workshops.
STEM Tuesday–In the Classroom contributor, author, and STEM education consultant Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano writes about science and technology/engineering for kids. Running on Sunshine: How Does Solar Energy Work? –a book for early readers released this month–celebrates the innovative spirit and challenges behind engineering solar technologies, and received a starred review from Kirkus.