So, What is STEMginery, really?

You mean, what kind of an object?

At its core, connectors – both physical, as in bits of wood and plastic, and metaphorical, as in ideas that link other ideas together.

For ease in sorting things, we call some of the long one- or two-ended connectors “struts” or “beams”, and generally the others are just “connectors” or “hubs”.

Then we snap them together, and build awesome.

Conceptually

Building things is fun on its own, of course. However, the end goal being that STEMginery be a tool for learning, it so happens that “building” stuff with STEMginery can be quite educational.

A non-definitive list evidently includes,

  • principles of truss engineering – compression, tension. The shape of the network of struts and hubs is important. Triangle = good
  • breaking point of a certain material, or best disposition of that material in a network of connectors to achieve maximum strength with least material
  • Angles, patterns, symmetry. The hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle  is longer than the sides, while equilateral triangles have, well, equal sides. If you use right angles you will end up with struts of different lengths…

Going a bit deeper, concepts of crystallography and three dimensional shapes and forms get easier to comprehend. Geometric solids are easy and fast to build.

  • basic shapes – triangle, square, etc., “make sense”. An angle is two segments meeting at a point. One reason that angles have to wait until 3rd Grade is because we teach angles on the whiteboard or printed page. Sorry, that is not an angle – it’s a representation of an angle, thus adding another layer of abstraction to confuse the kids with. Working with soda straws and STEMginery connectors, a 4 year old (and maybe some 3 y.o.) can make sense of angles – what a segment is, what meeting at a point means, how certain angles are different from others and when put together they make certain shapes and not others becomes evident and simple. As my Dad used to say, we can always complicate it later. But at least it’s something easy to understand very early.
  • Next “notch”, let’s build and make sense of geometric solids. Also something within reach of many 4 year-olds. Yes, we run the risk of ruining their “schooling”, as they will be BORED when that “lesson” comes…
  • What about crystal shapes, molecular shapes, viruses, the frameworks of Life and physics and chemistry? easy! To the point that STEMginery might have a role to play even in high-falutin’ academia!

An example

Last night I invited a visitor to out The Robot Group meeting to try out STEMginery sClugs to build a basic truss with plain soda straws, the design with a square normal section. Then we placed a 2-pound XO laptop on top of the truss that was laying on its side. The truss promptly collapsed.

What was interesting of the event was the reactions. Some saw the collapse initially as an entertaining “fail”. Did I mention that the visitor was 9 years-old or so? His reaction seemed to be like a bit of confusion.

Now, I must admit that maybe I did expect the truss to hold. Maybe the kid assumed I knew what I was doing, and maybe what I saw as confusion had to do with his expectation of “success”. And it might be that I am old and mañoso (crafty) that I immediately segued into how we needed a crossbrace perpendicular to the main axis of the truss, and then guided him to do such a crossbrace – very briefly mentioning the issue of the length needing to be longer than the side of the truss.

Crossbrace added, the truss section did hold one XO, but the straws were buckling when a second one was added. This time the peanut gallery was engaged and focused in discussing the whats and wherefores of better design.

Now, I couldn’t have planned it better. I must admit it was serendipitous, but the fact is that the “lesson” went exactly where it should have gone. I totally loooove this thing about graceful failure being an opportunity and a motivator for learning! Maybe, maybe, someone doing this activity will feel inspired to experiment. Like in Real Life trying something out, figuring how it works, how it fails, then trying again (you can learn the fancy names for the Scientific Method later – but if you are doing it already, so much gained). Then getting motivated to research about how the Master Builders through the ages have dealt with similar issues. Then hopefully logging the finds.

That in itself would be worth many, many hours of “class” time.

Contrast this with a close ended “experiment” as seen in any school of the land. Either of, everything is designed to achieve “success” for a given project – a dry, recipe how-to of something, maybe with fancy and very expensive parts. Just like any theory-based cook, you’re shot if you don’t have the “right” ingredients – you never learned substitutions and creative hacking. Or, the structure is built with flimsy marshmallows that, besides being a shameful waste of foodstuff, at best is a representation of a truss as it is unable to actually reproduce issues of tension and compression. And is a total mess if the experiment “fails”.

Graceful failing = Good Thing

As I’ve said it before, it’s in the graceful failing where good learning often is to be found. It’s that “failure” and subsequent search for the “solution” where innovation is born. Responding to practical needs, even if simulated with a toy-like contraption, builds some of the skills and mindset – yes, “hacking” itself – that are at the core of the Scientist. The Mathematician. The Engineer. The Technologist.

And STEM becomes.

 

 

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