Tag Archives: science

Book Series about Simple Machines

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[An updated version of this post can be found at: https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2016/10/26/simple-machines-engineering-for-kids/]

There are several series of books about Simple Machines. I got samples from each series, and will write up here my first impressions of each. These are not meant to be in-depth reviews, just snapshots of my opinions. Of course, what book is best depends on your audience and your setting. I am looking for books to read aloud in group time to children age 2.5 to 7. Many of these books that I don’t rate high might be great for a 5 – 7 year old, but I’m trying to find something to appeal to a very wide range.

In this post, I summarize my impressions of the series, based on the books I read (starred). In the attached spreadsheet, I share my specific ratings for the books I read. Here are the four criteria I ranked them on:

  • Pictures: Are they good photos (current, focused, visually appealing) of things that are interesting to kids?
  • Words: Would this be a good read-aloud book for a group of 3 – 6 year olds? Easy to understand and interesting to listen to?
  • Big Idea: Does it get, and adequately convey the key concepts about this simple machine and how it works? (For my summary of what I think those key concepts are, see my Inventors of Tomorrow posts on each of the types of Simple Machines.)
  • Examples: Are there several good examples of the machine that would be interesting to children? (But I don’t want examples of every single way this simple machine can be applied, because sometimes that makes it hard for a young child to remember the big picture.)

Series Name: Amazing Science: Simple Machines. Author: Dahl
Books: Roll, Slope, and Slide*; Scoop, Seesaw, and Raise*; Pull, Lift, and Lower*; Cut, Chop, and Stop; Tires, Spokes, and Sprockets
Review: Engaging pictures and words, though a little high level for us. But I didn’t think the pulley book and inclined plane book did the best job of explaining key concepts.

Series Name: Blastoff Readers: Simple Machines. Author: Manolis
Books: Ramps*; Levers; Pulleys*; Screws; Wedges; Wheels and Axles*
Review: These would be my top choice if I had only 5 – 7 year olds, but they’re a little too long and too sophisticated for my little ones. Brightly colored and engaging pictures. Good diagrams and descriptions of key concepts – very clear. Nice examples

Series Name: Early Reader Science: Simple Machines. Author: Dahl
Books: Ramps and Wedges; Levers; Pulleys; Wheels and Axles*
Review: Pictures OK, but not especially appealing to young ones. Length-wise, it would be OK for circle, but vocabulary a little high level. It gives examples of so many kinds of wheels and axles (steering wheels, gears, sprockets, cranks, cams, etc.) that the basic concept is lost. Does not mention friction.

Series Name: How Toys Work. Author: Smith
Books: Ramps and Wedges*; Levers*; Pulleys*; Screws, Nuts and Bolts*; Wheels and Axles*
Review: I want to love these books. The pictures are great. The language is age appropriate and engaging. There are lots of good examples, all of which are toys and other things that appeal to young children. In some of the books, the big idea is explained well (Pulleys and Screws) But others seem to miss the big idea. (Ramps and Wedges; Wheels and Axles.) I would use these books to engage the younger students, but also want some of the other series to share with the older readers to better explain concept.

Series Name: My World of Science. Author: Randolph
Books: Inclined Planes in my World*; Levers in My World; Pulleys in my World; Wedges in My World*; Wheels and Axles in my World [there doesn’t appear to be a Screws book]
Review: Pictures are fine; words are appropriate level and the book is a good length for circle time, big idea is explained well, and there are lots of examples, but they all tie together in a clear logical way to the same big idea. It ends with asking “can you think of [wedges] you see around you?” Then offers a picture glossary of key words. This is a reliable, useable, but not exciting series.
Note: this series is bilingual English / Spanish. So Wedges in My World is also Cunas en mi mundo. Each page has the text in English first, then Spanish.

Series Name: Simple Machines. Author: Armentrout
Books: Inclined Planes, Levers*, Pulleys*, Screws*, Wedges*, Wheels*
Review: The language level and the length would be fine for 5 – 7 year olds, but too much for our little ones. They also go beyond what we need with our younger age group (level book addresses first, second and third class levers and compound levers.) Pictures are fine, examples are good, but in some books there are so many examples the big idea is lost.

Series Name: Simple Machines. Author: Bodden
Books: Inclined Planes; Levers, Pulleys*, Screws*, Wedges*, Wheels*
Review: They’re pretty books, but photos may be a little artsy for little kids. Words are a little dry. In general concepts are very clear and easy to understand and examples clearly illustrate the ideas. But, I thought the screw book was unclear and jumbled examples together that it wasn’t clear how they related. We used several of these books in our circle times in class, but tried to balance with How Toys Work, which are brighter and more fun.

Series Name: Simple Machines. Author: Tieck
Books: Inclined Planes*, Levers, Pulleys*, Screws*, Wedges, Wheels and Axles
Review: A little long, a little old, and too dry for our purposes. But, I think these are the best descriptions of the big idea. We didn’t read these in circle, but I did have them on the bookshelf for the older kids to check out.

Series Name: Simple Machines to the Rescue. Author: Thales
Books: Inclined Planes to the Rescue*; Levers ttR, Pulleys ttR, Screws ttR*, Wedges ttR, Wheels and Axles ttR
Review: I see these recommended on other people’s sites, but I’m not a fan. The pictures aren’t great, the language is a little advanced. And I just find that they do the weakest job of explaining simple machines concepts. For example, in the screw book, their first example is a lid on a soda bottle, then a spiral staircase, then Archimedes screw, then an olive oil press, and then it talks about things that are held together by screws. Nowhere in there does it really describe what a screw is and what type of work each of these tools has in common.

Series Name: Useful Machines. Author: Oxlade
Books: Ramps and Wedges; Levers; Pulleys; Screws*; Wheels
Review: Good pictures, engaging and easy to understand for 5 – 7 year olds. I have only read the screw book, but I like it a lot. However, I would not use it as the intro to screws. Once kids had a solid grasp of the basics of screws, it does a nice job of giving examples of all the different applications

If you’re teaching about Simple Machines, be sure to check out my Inventors of Tomorrow series… I give examples of lots of hands-on activities you can use with kids 2.5 – 7 to teach these concepts.

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The Martian – A Study in Character

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Since Andy Weir’s book, The Martian, came out, I’ve had many friends recommend it to me. And not just the science fiction fans. All sorts of friends raved about this book! I hadn’t read it yet, but I saw the movie last week, and am now a third of the way through the book. I love the movie and book for a wide variety of reasons… but what I want to focus on here is Character. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is in many ways, the kind of person I want my kids to be, and who I hope to inspire kids in our Inventors class to be. I don’t mean that I want them to be astronauts, or even necessarily scientists. I’m not talking about their academic field or career choice… I’m talking about their character traits.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story: Mark is a botanist and mechanical engineer who is one of six crew members on a mission to Mars. He is believed to be killed, and thus left behind during an emergency evacuation of the planet, and needs to figure out how to survive on his own for years until he can be rescued.

I really liked the movie… but I hadn’t realized how much I liked it until I was listening to the /Filmcast, and Jeff Cannata said (around 46:30) “The hero of this movie is smarts, intelligence, can-do attitude. How not giving up, thinking your way through things, being well-educated… is to be lauded, to be celebrated.” And I thought, YES!

Here are some of the laudable qualities I see demonstrated by the character Mark Watney:

  • Curiosity and desire to learn: All scientists are driven by curiosity, but especially a botanist who has chosen to give years of his life to training and travelling to Mars so he can explore the idea of growing plants on other planets. We learn very little of Mark’s back story, but clearly his career is defined by a desire to learn more.
  • Can-do attitude and willingness to work hard. When he is faced with inconceivable challenges, he doesn’t let them overwhelm him. He just starts working. In the book, there are frequent instances where he says “OK, to accomplish this thing, I need to solve these five problems. That’s’ too much to think about right now. I’m just going to think about one of those problems. After I’ve solved that one, I’ll move on to problem number 2.”
  • Problem-solving: In the book and movie, there’s no “bad guy”. Just a hostile environment, and an unending series of problems to solve. In the book, especially, the focus of much of the action is on the details of how he solves those problems. You wouldn’t think the discussion of how to collect CO2 in a high pressure vessel and how to liberate hydrogen from hydrazine would be interesting to a non-scientist like me, but it was. Not because I care about that specific challenge, but because I am fascinated by how people think and how they problem-solve and Weir does a fabulous job of walking you through Mark’s thoughts.
  • Flexible thinking: Mark is continuously forced to use materials in ways they weren’t designed to be used. This requires looking past the surface of an object. It requires thinking first about the goals you hope to accomplish, then what criteria you need your materials to meet, then searching for the material that meets that criteria. It’s about looking for underlying qualities, and defining for yourself whether they meet your needs. (This is what open-ended materials do for a kid in a tinkering oriented classroom!)
  • Positive attitude: He does, of course, have moments of anger and railing at the unfairness of the situation, and moments of self-pity. But overall, he remains positive and optimistic throughout, with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
  • Forgiving: He understands that his crew did not leave him behind on purpose. He doesn’t waste energy being angry at them, and wants to be sure they are told it was not their fault.

And it’s not just the main character who displays these traits. It’s virtually every character in the movie / book. Another thing that makes this story special is the way it portrays collaboration amongst scientists and engineers, as they work together to solve a problem. We see lots of long hours and hard work and dedication amongst people who have studied long and worked hard to become experts in their field. And we see their excitement when they come up with new possible solutions, their frustration when it fails, their stick-to-it-iveness to keep trying after failure, and sheer giddiness they feel when their idea succeeds.

So, if I’ve decided these are character qualities I want to inspire in the children in my life, how do I teach them?

NPR had a great article this spring about non-academic skills: what to call them and some educational theories on how to teach them. Experts in education agree that there is more to success in life and in career than academics. (Academic skills are of course very important too.) They talk about things like critical thinking, character skills such as gratitude, self-controlgrit, growth-based mindset,  willingness to fail and to try again, social skills and emotional literacy, and love of learning.

How do I teach these things? I’ve written about several of them (see all those links at the end of that last paragraph? Just click on any of them to see my post on that topic.) Other things I think about are: encouraging children to tinker, focusing more on the process than on the product, and focusing on internal motivation more than on punishment and reward.

Someone asked me if they should take their child to this movie. First, this is not a little kids movie. Way over their heads. But…. if I had an 11 – 15 year old child who was at all interested in seeing a movie about space, would I have them watch it? You bet. Watching a movie about how science rocks, scientists are cool, and modelling positive character traits is absolutely a good use of a couple hours. There are some tense situations, a gory wound, some swear words, and some rear nudity. So, if those things concern you, read reviews on Common Sense Media or Parent Previews, or learn exactly what things your child would see and hear on Kids in Mind. I personally find that the overall positive messages of the film outweigh those details.

And if you have a child who’s under age 8, but is wild about space… well, this isn’t a movie I would show them. But I do have tons of suggestions for hands-on activities for learning about space, plus recommended books, apps, songs, and videos, all on my Inventors of Tomorrow blog. And I have a review of some really fabulously cool Mars Rovers toys from Hot Wheels too.

Building a Scarf Cannon

We’ve travelled to many children’s museums around the country, and our sons favorite exhibits are always the ones where fans or pneumatic tube systems shoot balls or scarves  through tubes, like the “scarf poof” at Kidsquest, the Air-mazing Laboratory at Imagine in Everett,  and this one at the Tacoma children’s museum:

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We started with the fan. Exploratorium mentioned that they had made a wind tube using a squirrel cage fan. I researched those, but they need wiring skills I don’t have. So, we chose a utility fan, specifically the Lasko Blower. (You could probably use a regular fan, but it wouldn’t create nearly as strong a wind.) This video shows what the fan does with a scarf on its lowest setting – all the other videos have the fan on the highest setting. (In class, I started the kids with just the fan and some scarves to blow up into the air, and even that simple game elicited gleeful giggles.)

We bought a ten-foot long flexible ventilation hose The challenge was: how do we connect this round hose to the oblong opening on the fan?

We built a couple of boxes from cardboard and cut door flaps in them where you can push a scarf in. These were more fun for kids, because it focuses the air, so scarves shoot a little higher.

And check out what happens when we sent a little plastic “bowling ball” through the door.

We mounted a poster tube through the box. You could stuff scarves into a tube, hold your hand over one end, then let go, and they’d shoot into the air. You could shoot a lightweight ball too – like a cannon ball.

Then it was time to figure out how to attach the hose to the box. We tried taping the hose to the box but that didn’t work. So, I bought a hose connector for the end of the hose, figuring we could attach that more easily. IMG_20150921_184333465

Then we assembled it. Put the cardboard box over the fan, mounted the hose on the box, and we were good to go. When I tested this at home, with just one child, it worked great. We had a fabulous time with it, shooting scarves into the air, shooting balls so they rolled across the floor for the dog to chase, shooting balls into a box for improvised “golf” game. Tons of fun for both of us.

But, then my husband tested it in a class full of kids. The first problem was that it kept falling apart. The fan tilts in its base, and if you tilt it too far, it pushes the cardboard box right off. (I may have forgotten to warn my husband about this issue… )  When kids put their hands in  and pulled them out quickly, that pulled the cardboard box off quickly. Just the weight of the hose could pull the box off. So, there was a lot of work involved in just keeping it together, and the kids weren’t that excited by the results even when it worked.

So, before the next time we’d use it in class, we did some tinkering. We used a ratchet strap to hold the hose onto the box and the box onto the fan. We turned it so the hose fed off the other side of the fan, over the handle, which helped to stabilize the box. This solved the falling apart problem. IMG_20150918_195451251

We had discovered that kids like it better when the scarves shoot vertically up into the air instead of shooting out horizontally, so we wove the hose through the legs of a stool to get that upward angle.IMG_20150918_195439255

Check out the video at the top of this post to see the scarf cannon in action.

We took it back to class, and this time, we had a hit on our hands! Lots of kids loved feeding through scarves, and balls.. We discovered that kids liked it even better when we set the stool up on top of the cubbies, so the scarves were shooting out from 4′ up in the air. The three biggest fans of this toy were a team of a 5 year old boy and a 4 year old boy, and a 2.3 year old girl. They discovered that if you sent through a balloon that was just the right size, it makes a really funny rumbly noise. The little girl was just as successful at using this invention as the older kids. She clearly learned from them. The boys had been having fun catching the scarves in a bin as they floated down toward the ground. When they walked away for awhile, she picked up the bin and tried to catch the scarves.

My next step is to try to re-create this thing we saw at a bounce house place… it was a batting cage, where a ball floated above a cone and the kids could hit it with a nerf bat. Right now, with a 4″ wide stream of air, my scarf cannon holds the ball right above the tube outlet. But I’m thinking if I got a traffic cone type shape that really focused the air, we might get enough lift to do this…

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In our Inventors class, we are encouraging kids to tinker, and try things they’ve never done before. We tell them to build something, test it, re-build it, and so on. I am intentionally doing the same thing as I design activities for the class. Experimenting, failing, and trying again. This scarf cannon is still a work in progress, but it’s definitely a fun exploration!

You can also check out my experiments with building a wind tube, a marble run, and a water wall.

DIY Water Wall

pourWhen I built our ball wall / marble run, my goal was to have a flexible design so the pieces could also be used for water play and for a sensory table. With this week’s nice weather, we were able to test the theory, and it was a great success in terms of fun!

You can see there is some leaking that happens around the joints when two same-dimension connectors or pipes are next to each other (which was fine with my son – he liked that there was water coming out everywhere), but probably 50 – 60% of the volume of the water made it all the way through the maze.

splashThe water works work better when you pour slowly, but my son liked the splash effect he got from pouring quickly.

The end point of our water maze was a plastic cup with two magnets glued on it. Whenever it filled up, we replaced it with the other cup, and poured the captured water back through the maze – we also had a tub full of water nearby.

The best part: when the cup fills up all the way with water, the weight is more than the magnets can support, so it slides to the ground. “Level complete!”

DIY Ball Wall

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marble run

The theme for this week’s Inventors’ Lab was gravity, so I made a ball wall (aka marble run). This is like those exhibits you find in most children’s museums where where are pipes and joints mounted on magnets. The children can re-arrange them to make any path they choose, then run a marble through them to test their path. They may find that the ball shoots off-course at some point, and need to re-adjust the pipes for the ball to reach its goal. Just playing with these is a great exercise in tinkering and hands-on engineering. My son can play with these for hours, so we decided to make one for home and for class.

I got my original idea from Frugal Fun for Boys.

This was a really easy project once I got the supplies. About three-quarters of the effort was deciding which supplies to buy in what size (and what strength of magnets), so down below, I’ll include my full list, with affiliate links, and the lessons I learned to hopefully make your life easier if you want to replicate. In class, the kids definitely had fun with it!

Note: This marble run is designed for repeated use by lots of kids. I will also be adapting parts of it as the year goes on for water play and sensory play. There are lots of easier / cheaper ways to build a marble run for short term use at home, so I’ll include links to those at the bottom.

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Ball wall

Supply List

On Frugal Fun she used regular size marbles, so I needed to adapt her materials a little. In our class, we have children as young as 2.5, so I wanted to use the bigger shooter marbles instead to make them less swallowable.

The materials I used: oil drip pans, 1 1/4 inch PVC joints (45 and 90 degree elbows), 1 1/4 inch PVC pipe, 1 1/4 inch OD clear polycarbonate tubing, a tube with a curved end – it’s part of a p-trap (you can buy the piece separately but I don’t know what it’s called), ceramic magnets, glue, shooter marbles, miscellaneous funnels 1, 2, 3 And a couple dinosaur party cups to catch the balls at the end of the run.

Technical notes / things I learned in the tinkering process

Pipes and joints: Important lesson – 1 1/4 inch PVC pipes are not 1.25 inches around! I think that’s their inside diameter. Outside diameter is 1.66  inches. These pipes and joints are bigger than you need for shooter marbles, You could go down one size, I think. The marbles run just fine through the clear tubing, which has an outside diameter of 1.25 inches, inner diameter of 1 1/8.

Marbles: I liked these shooter marbles (Note: don’t order these… they are regular small marbles, not shooters, despite the description) I also made marble size balls from Model Magic clay, which seemed like a fine idea in advance. They were pretty, they ran through the tubes just fine, and since they were lighter weight, they didn’t knock the tubes out of line as much. But, there were a couple problems. 1) If you mixed them with the marbles, the marbles were heavy enough that if they fell on top of a model magic ball, they’d squish it out of its nice round shape, and then it would start getting caught in tubes. 2) if you step on the model magic balls, they squish flat, and 3) after this accidental discovery, a certain three year old in the class took great pleasure is stepping on all the balls and squishing them flat. If you squish them once or twice, I can re-roll them into a round ball, but after that, they’re pretty much useless.

Funnels: I ordered the widest mouth funnels I could find, but none of these funnels had a wide enough neck for the shooter marble to go through… I sawed the end off the yellow one so a marble would go through, then I taped it to a pipe because at that time I didn’t have a file to file off the rough edges of the cut.)

Magnets: I wanted some that were strong enough that the pipes wouldn’t slip out of place every time you sent a marble through. But, they couldn’t be too strong, as I wanted it to be possible for a three year old to pull the pipe off the metal pan and move it around. The magnets I ordered (linked above) are perfect. I put one on the back of each 45 degree joint, 2 on the back of most items, and three on the 2′ long segment of PVC.

One issue I hadn’t foreseen is that you can’t just lean the pans up against a wall and let the kids play. The first time they grab hold of a pipe to pull it off the metal pan, the metal pan would fall on their head. I could try to teach them to brace with one hand and pull with the other – but that’s not really gonna happen. So, you have to secure the pan. Lots of Pinterest folks who use drip pans for magnet activities mount them on their wall permanently (putting screws through them into the wall) or semi-permanently by putting wide velcro strips on the wall. Neither was an option for me in my classroom, so I used ratchet straps to tie them to a bookcase. The only problem was then you have straps going across the front of the pan. I’m betting you could also use bungee cords… there’s enough of a rim around the pans that the bungee cord could hook to it. But since bungees come in specific lengths, you’d have to know in advance what length you needed.

Or, for home use, don’t buy a drip pan. You can just use your refrigerator to mount your ball wall… just be sure that the marbles can’t roll under the fridge.

This was a very quick and easy project, except for sawing the PVC pipe and clear tubes into the lengths I wanted. Using a hack saw and files to smooth the rough edges was perfectly do-able, but took 15 – 20 minutes per cut, I would guess. Then I learned about Ratcheting PVC Cutters which make the job SO MUCH EASIER!!!

I have also bought some flexible tubing and some T-joints, and plan to experiment with using these items in a water wall and for sensory table play, with either rice or beans.

Easier ways to do a ball wall, and other ideas

Use toilet paper tubes, paper towel tubes and masking tape like Lemon Lime Adventures and Tinkerlab.

Or those same tubes and magnets, like Growing a Jeweled Rose or Teach Preschool.

Or water bottles and magnets, mounted on the fridge instead of a drip pan.

Build a hand-held marble maze in a shoe box lid with craft sticks.

Here’s a collection of links to good options, both DIY and store-bought.

Resource for STEM activities

If you’re looking for 100’s of ideas for hands-on activities to teach science, engineering, and math, check out my other blog, www.InventorsOfTomorrow.com.