Mad Scientist activities encourage imagination

By David Broyles

August 8, 2014

DOBSON — The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service’s 4-H Mad Scientist workshop Thursday was where participants learned how to push electrons and their imaginations. Elkin Elementary School fifth grade science teacher Mary Shepherd served as the instructor for the workshop.

“Children (age 2 to 7 years) are the best scientists we have. They have no limits and use all their senses,” said Shepherd. “They ask the greatest questions. They problem solve because they want the candy mom put on the top shelf and will figure out what to stack to get it.”

Shepherd explained with age usually comes less chance to use these observation skills and the accompanying loss of perception. Other factors affecting this are with comes age worries about failing, and being afraid of making mistakes further inhibits the natural-born drive to question and create.

She said science interest often depends on good role models, be that in the form of an uncle who tinkers with small motors or an aunt who understands the science behind successfully canning food. She said mentorship is crucial and that science “does not exist in a vacuum” but is collaborative.

According to Shepherd, much of the holistic approach in science investigation currently moves from the qualitative to the quantitative, which is the opposite of the traditional approach, where inquiry had to move forward from proven fact and must have a starting question. This Next Generation of Science Students (NGSS) approach has children considering possibilities without a question to solve a problem posed in a scenario. She said contemporary science has conceded the power of sheer human attention can affect a problem’s outcome.

The program for children ages 9 to 18 years opened with a challenge to use random materials, including a cardboard cylinder and aluminum foil, to light an electric bulb. Extension Agent Whitney Sprinkle said she was surprised how fast the teams came up with a solution after only being shown how to fold a slip of aluminum foil. Other activities included making spinning tops which created an optical illusion. She said participants quickly moved from lighting bulbs to reworking their materials to melt crayons.

The workshop concluded with a challenge to design a free floating structure which would hold the largest amount of marbles possible. Materials uses were kept secret in paper bags until it was time to build their creation. Shepherd said no trial and error or testing before the final “float off” would be allowed, concretely demonstrating the metaphor “sink or swim” to the young inventors.

David Broyles may be reached at 336-415-4739 or on Twitter@MtAiryNewsDave.