Break Things and Blow Shit Up: An immature guide to science teaching

My mother-in-law suspects that her granddaughter is being raised with no adult supervision whatsoever.  Her suspicions are  correct.

This year, The World’s Most Spoiled 14-year-old  (she had a birthday this week) is learning physics. The rocket scientist has multiple degrees in physics. The stage would seem to be set for positive developments in science learning. Two slight problems have occurred.

The first is that the latest educational fad in science teaching is based on the belief that if you take out the actual science children will like it better, leading to such assignments as creating a taxonomy of Disney shows to learn the periodic table of elements.

The second is that the house rocket scientist is really, really bad at pretending. This is a good trait if you are actually involved in rocket science. Say you are building a very scientific radar thingie

I think we can all agree that it is highly desirable that it actually be a radar thingie and not just an old  computer screen with green paint on it that we are just pretending to be a scientific radar thingie, no?

This, unfortunately, does not translate well into helping The Spoiled One with assignments that the rocket scientist believes to be stupid. The last project was explaining the physics of superheroes. The Spoiled One chose Wonder Woman. The rocket scientist explained in detail the flaws behind superhuman strength and when it got to the Lasso of Truth he had enough.

“This is just a stupid assignment.”

Perhaps he was caught in the Lasso of Truth. Whatever. This is what teachers call not having parental support at home and helicopter parents treating their child as if they are special like a snowflake. This is what parents call not putting up with stupid bullshit that teachers want to pretend is science.

It was left up to the non-physics major in the house when The Spoiled One was required to come up with a physics-related science fair project.

“I’d say the biggest uses for physics are in breaking things and blowing shit up.”

I pronounced, in my best pronouncing tone. The Spoiled One showed the first glimmer of interest in science that had been evident this year.

“I’m not so sure about blowing stuff up. Tell me more about breaking stuff. What kind of stuff?”

(Notice her more mature phrasing , thus proving yet again her grandmother’s point).

“Well, several years ago, they made a stadium in Minnesota, a lot like the Staples Center in downtown LA. They didn’t seem to have taken into account the fact that it snows in Minnesota. After the first good snowfall, the roof caved in.”

Being bloodthirsty in the ways of children, her interest was seriously piqued now,

“Did it kill a lot of people?”

“Actually, I think that pieces of it started to fall in first, so then they closed the stadium and repaired the roof. My point is that I think physics has to do with stress and forces and if you don’t get it correct, the roof could fall in on you, literally.”

She asked hopefully,

“But, it could have killed a lot of people, right? What kind of experiment could I do?

After some discussion of stress resistance, forces and velocity, we consulted the rocket scientist for his views. It was decided to replicate the Three Little Pigs, building a house of mud and straw, a house of wood and a house of bricks. We discussed the fact that in various parts of the world people actually do live in thatched huts made from mud and straw, in our neighborhood, there are plenty of houses made from wood and concrete. Maybe the angle of the design is important as well as the material.

We’ll make several of each type of structure. For each of these constructions, The Spoiled One will distribute the same weight of material equally across the roof  and determine the outcome. The rocket scientist believes that it will either fall in right away or not at all because the few weeks she has for this experiment is not long enough for any real stress fractures to occur. We’ll find out.

Her second test will involve dropping material from a height on to the roofs of these structure. She can vary the height, from one foot to twenty feet or so, dropping her weight from her second floor bedroom window on to the structure below.

Now that a project has been decided, the rocket scientist will help The Spoiled One find references she can read to learn more about stress testing.  He had suggested putting the new baby guinea pig, Patty, in one of the houses prior to testing. He argued that it would demonstrate that she had confidence in her calculations.

His mother has good reason to worry about leaving him alone to watch her grandchild.

Patty the baby guinea pig

Disclaimer: No guinea pigs were harmed in the writing of this blog.

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  1. If Patty gets squished her name is just that much more appropriate!

    I think structures fail by being subjected to pressure either 1) beyond their capacity, or 2) within their capacity but more times than they can handle (“cycles to failure”).

    For the first one she could just put more & more weight until it collapses. For the second one, you could just keep putting the weight on & off until it collapses, or your arms fall off, or tell Ronda they are “drills” and make her do it.

    To speed things up, I was thinking you need some kind of variable vertical force. If you really want to nerd-out, maybe you could take a desk-top fan & attach a weight to one fan blade and put it on top. The imbalance should give the effect, then measure how long it takes to collapse. Might be awkward and still probably will take too long (or the weight needed will break your fan), but then again there is physics in the design of the experiment that is worth more than 10 lassos of truthiness.

    Of course, the best variable vertical force would be a guinea pig on a pogo-stick, but since she’s just a baby you won’t have time for her to learn to use it.

    Anyway, another enjoyable post 🙂 & Happy Birthday to The Spoiled One.

  2. I’m pretty sure that the Lasso of Truth works this way:

    – Wonder Woman “captures” bad guy in lasso
    – bad guy is thus held captive (poor guy), with nothing to look at except Wonder Woman in her impressive body suit.
    – bad guy’s cerebral process that would normally facilitate “lying” ceases to function, temporarily.

    The functioning of Wonder Woman’s invisible jet is less clear (so to speak). Wouldn’t we be able to see Ms. Woman, in squat position, seemingly gliding along at 30,000 feet?

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