Time travel, invention and history

In David Hunter’s Making History, time travelers visit different historical eras to invent or discover important breakthroughs using the knowledge and resources available at the time. Projects integrate science, math and writing.

A former social studies and language arts teacher, Hunter designed Zombie-Based Learning, which teaches geography. He builds free curriculum-design tools for teachers at ThemeSpark.net.

Here’s the kickstarter.

James Dyson: ‘Failures are interesting’

Dyson at a workshop with students.

Inventor James Dyson built 5,127 prototypes before completing his first bagless vacuum, notes Science Friday. “My life and my day are full of failures,” he says. “Failures are interesting.”

Students invent classroom door lock

“Shaken by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and determined to prevent future tragedies, a team of high school students in Washington, D.C., has invented a new locking device for classroom doors,” reports Discovery News. Often classroom doors can’t be locked from the inside due to fire-safety regulations. They hope their low-cost device will help teachers keep intruders out.


Ten Benjamin Banneker Academic High School students, led by math teacher John Mahoney, created the Dead Stop. A PVC pipe that’s hinged on one side can be locked on the other with a steel pin. Fitted over a hydraulic door closer, it will prevent the door hinge from widening.

 When the students did research about patents and commercially available door locks, they said most of the devices they found required physical installation either on the door or the jamb. Other devices were expensive and complicated to install. Theirs should cost less than $5 and be simple enough that a teacher could lock the door in under 30 seconds, they said. Once the danger has passed it should be easy to remove as well.

With a Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam grant, the students plan to build and test several prototypes of their design, publicize the DIY instructions and collaborate with a company to manufacture the device. They’re hoping for pro bono help in applying for a patent.

In praise of failure

For an inventor, “failures are just problems that have yet to be solved,” writes John Dyson in Wired. It took 5,127 prototypes and 15 years to get his vacuum right.

Dyson’s new engineering foundation encourages “hands-on creative thinking through design and engineering,” rather than prescriptive learning, he writes.  He wants kids to tackle problems, make mistakes and keep going.

Too much knowledge?

There is nothing like knowing it all to kill the imagination,” write Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon, authors of Imagination First, on the Education Nation web site:

“When we become expert, or think we have, we get the benefits of intellectual shortcuts and far greater processing efficiency-but we suffer the cost of closed-mindedness. Having seen it all, we stop looking. Having been there, we stop going. Having done that, we stop doing.”

“Seriously?” asks Robert Pondiscio in Idiot’s Delight on Core Knowledge Blog.

As an alternative to mind-numbing knowledge, Liu and Noppe-Brandon praise GeoDome, an “experience of pure wonder.”

Using Google Earth, real-time NASA data, state-of-the-art animation designed by a Pixar veteran, a single laptop, a projector, and an Xbox joystick, McConville takes the guests on a journey to . . .  anywhere they want in the known universe.

“We did not dream our way to Google Earth, NASA, Pixar or the Xbox,” Pondiscio points out.

A deep knowledge base, years of training and expertise enable us to create the things that inspire awe in others. And I can’t help but wonder if physicists, engineers, and scientists of every stripe would be surprised to learn that their hard-earned expertise has resulted in “closed-mindedness.”

My husband knows a great deal about electrical engineering, a field in which he earned a PhD. Knowing a lot has enabled him to come up with new ideas, for which he holds several dozen patents. Ignorance is not the mother, father or brother-in-law of invention.

If I were to make a list of the problems afflicting American education, excess knowledge would be very low on the list.

Teaching creativity

While IQ scores rise over time, creativity scores are declining in the U.S., write Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Newsweek. It’s not clear why, though Bronson and Merryman think passive TV watching and video game playing may be crowding out creative play.

Other nations are trying to encourage students to think creatively and solve problems, while U.S. schools often concentrate on teaching basic skills.  Creativity is seen as something that happens in art class. Here’s where the article got interesting for me:

The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening — ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly.

. . . Creativity isn’t about freedom from concrete facts. Rather, fact-finding and deep research are vital stages in the creative process. Scholars argue that current curriculum standards can still be met, if taught in a different way.

Problem solving requires using both sides of the brain, switching rapidly between convergent to divergent thinking, Bronson and Merryman write. The solver considers known facts and strategies, then scans “remote memories that could be vaguely relevant,” searching for  “unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.”  The brain locks on to a possible answer — aha! — then evaluates whether it’s worth pursing.

(Yesterday, my husband, an electrical engineer who holds many patents, told me his advice to a friend who’s working for an inventor with a divergent idea. “Try to impress the investors with your competence so they’ll recommend you for a job when this fails.”)

Creativity training helps students learn to solve problems, say researchers at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Georgia, and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron that admits students by lottery, teaches problem solving as part of its STEM mission. Fifth graders were given four weeks to design proposals for reducing noise in the library, which has windows looking out on a public space.

Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding — anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall? A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes?

Then teams developed a plan of action. They built scale models and chose fabric samples. They realized they’d need to persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation. Teams persuaded others to support them — sometimes so well, teams decided to combine projects. Finally, they presented designs to teachers, parents, and Jim West, inventor of the electric microphone.

Teachers had designed the project to meet Ohio’s curriculum standards. That was reflected in the school’s first-year test scores, which placed it third among Akron schools.

Sixth-grader Brandon Smith’s Hamster Cleaner 3000 made the finals of a local TV stations’ Coolest Creations contest, after competing at the Invention Convention at the Cleveland Great Lakes Science Center.