Ok, all you Whovians. It’s time for an update on Eva’s T.A.R.D.I.S, which I will from now on simply call TARDIS, because I hate typing all those periods.
We’ve been working every day for the past two weeks on the 3-D cardboard replica of the TARDIS that will become part of Eva’s Halloween costume. We’re taking a little time off of other subjects so we can more deeply explore the concepts behind the engineering of this blue monstrosity. Eva has made a lot of progress, and I have sat on my hands and actively bit my tongue to keep from plunging in with my own advice. Ok. True confessions: I’ve advised some. But I’ve really tried, and there are times when I’ve caught myself and hurried away to do dishes or something so that Eva can do her own problem-solving. I’ve also helped some with the box cutter (though she’s done a lot of that too), but only cutting where Eva has instructed. It’s been a growth process for both of us.
So what have we been learning by building a TARDIS?
I am an organization nut. This ability to look at a large problem and break it down to smaller doable components helps me do everything from clean the house to take on a major renovation project (like we did last winter). It has helped me form and run a nonprofit organization and build a window seat. Problem solving is an essential skill, and as such, improves with practice.
The TARDIS is a problem solving wonderland. Eva began with a vision: a life-sized blue police box on wheels, with lights and a door that opens. But then what? What order will we do things? What things do we need to procure? What adhesives are best? In efforts to be transparent, I will tell you: this is where my natural inclination to take over gives me trouble. Since I naturally organize, I tend to make suggestions: Eva, why don’t we start on the roof today? And it’s when I do this that I have to physically walk away, because these are the decisions that Eva needs to make. We as teachers and parents often don’t trust our kids’ abilities enough, or perhaps more to the point, we aren’t patient enough to let them figure it out in their own time. But it is essential to give kids time and space and BACK OFF so they can design their own paths. How else will they learn?
When I have backed off, of course Eva has come up with her own plans and goals. On Friday she completed the light at the top of the TARDIS. It was a grand accomplishment.
Electronic Circuit Building
This was the one “assignment” I gave Eva in the TARDIS project: light the ship up, and for at least one lighting component, make it from scratch, with wires, resistors, bulbs, and switches. We combed the internet for help, looking specifically for how to match up voltage values between the bulb and batteries. This bit of information remained elusive, but we did find a DIY instructional that laid out a simple circuit.
After two trips to Radio Shack, we started the project, and Eva modified it to include a switch. We also opted for electrical tape to make the wire connections instead of soldering. Eva discovered along the way why soldering was recommended, because our electrical tape connection at the switch kept slipping, causing a short in the circuit. But that’s ok: now she understands what it means when a component has a short. She had to unwrap the electrical/duct tape circuit three times to improve the connection.
After she completed the light circuit, she wrapped the whole thing in bacon-themed duct tape, and stuck it in a cleaned out spaghetti jar. But then we noticed that the LED she used was largely one-directional, and most of the light was shooting straight through the bottom of the jar, which would make the light seem less bright. We brainstormed several options to resolve this and Eva finally settled on attaching a piece of reflective aluminum foil to the top of the jar, which reflected the light back down and out the sides, making the unit appear brighter.
In the end, she wrapped the whole jar in wax paper to hide the bacon duct tape and further diffuse the light. After flipping the unit upside down and attaching it to the top of the TARDIS, she painted and attached the “metal” cardboard grid around the light fixture. The switch comes out at the bottom, inside the TARDIS, so she can turn it on and off.
The Pythagorean Theorem
To create the roof itself, Eva and I had a wonderful mathematics conversation. We discussed possible shapes of the roof, and Eva decided on a four-sided pyramid. But how do you actually make a pyramid?
We started by drawing a square, which represented the top of the TARDIS. Eva labeled each side of the square to match the length of each side of the TARDIS’ body. She then drew lines to connect the corners, which made four right triangles.
I asked her: if we made the triangles this size, what would the roof look like? After a moment’s consideration, Eva determined that it would only make a flat roof: she needed to retain the size of the triangles’ bases, but increase their sides so the overall shape would stand up as the form she wanted. She decided that increasing the sides by two inches would be enough.
This is where the Pythagorean Theorem came in. Eva wanted to add two inches to the triangle sides, but she didn’t know what their length was when laid flat, as in the illustration. We had to figure this number out, and the Pythagorean Theorem is the perfect method. But with only the measurements of the base of each triangle (the length of the TARDIS sides), we had the not very simple A squared + B squared = 31 squared.
We looked for a while at this, and Eva determined that the triangle sides A and B were actually the same, as these were all isosceles triangles. We could then say A squared = B squared. This led us to A squared + A squared = 31 squared, or 2A squared = 31 squared. From there, we simply solved the equation, and discovered the length of the triangle sides if the roof were flat. Eva added two inches to each triangle side, and voila: a pyramid!
Fine Motor Skills
For many portions of this project, we’ve needed to use a box cutter. Eva’s been cutting stencils for the Police Box sign (which will become a light box), and though I helped her cut some of the rounded bits, I had her work on all the straight cuts herself.
Eva has never developed what people consider a “normal” pencil grip (despite many interventions, both by myself and the school district), and this awkward grasp makes it difficult for her when she’s working on those fine motor skills. I felt that the box cutter exercise was wonderful practice, as she had to keep it accurate and apply pressure at the same time.
Engineering Structural Support
This week, Eva created and attached the phone box portion of the TARDIS. Figuring out how to install the phone in the box (she used fabric hooks), and then how to attach the box to the TARDIS itself was tricky. She also cut out the main door (again, using the box cutter). We discussed possibilities of how to attach the completed Police Box light boxes (these are the lighted signs at the top of the TARDIS), once she completes them. Do you cut a hole in the TARDIS and insert them? Do you simply glue them to the front? What adhesives will be strong enough to support the weight of the lights inside? All great things to figure out.
Assessing the Qualities of Various Materials
This brings up another important point: learning how to assess the qualities of various materials. Wood vs. cardboard, screws vs. nails, tape vs. glue. We’ve experimented with scotch tape, packing tape, duct tape, electrical tape, low temperature hot glue and high temperature hot glue, as well as wood glue and Elmer’s white. Each has it’s use, and Eva’s used a bit of all of them, depending on the need.
Though the TARDIS may just appear to be a box, it is a lighted machine, with lights, working doors, and compartments, and will have caster wheels on the bottom so Eva can pull it around with her on Halloween night. This takes a lot of design. As adults, we take these steps for granted, but at some point we had to learn how to do it. After all, a box is just a box. But a TARDIS…. well now. That’s something altogether different.
Patience and Commitment
This is a big project, and sometimes steps can feel tedious. When the light kept shorting out, Eva became tempted to just let it flicker. When she saw she had to cut out four light box signs with the box cutter, she sighed. She’s also been tempted to skimp on the exterior texture that she had originally envisioned. It’s ok: she’s been working with setting small attainable goals with her novel writing for years. It’s natural to want to give up or take short cuts. But it’s my job to encourage, help her break it down into manageable steps, and provide plenty of breaks when she needs them. This it not an instant gratification project. And in this world of immediate digital feedback, I think patience and long-term vision are important qualities to nurture.
Lastly, Eva and I have discussed at length the types of lights she would like to use for the lighted signs and windows. We discussed the value of LEDs, how they use less energy and are therefore better for the environment. We have also talked about where we should purchase them, preferring an independent provider over a big-box store. This month is crazy – husband-Jamie is directing a play, Eva’s in a play, and both kids have numerous band and choir concerts. Most stores don’t have their Christmas supplies out yet, and we put off internet ordering too late to ensure we had enough time to install the lights.
This led to other interesting conversations, because the only store in town that had them was one I have ethical difficulties with. In this case, I compromised my higher values and went to the store. And then I was faced again with a dilemma: though Eva had decided on LEDs, they only had incandescents, which required bigger batteries, as of course they use more electricity. Though I made the purchases, Eva and I discussed my decision and our family’s commitment to making ethical consumer decisions. We also discussed how careful planning could have helped us make better choices.
Which of These are on Standardized Tests?
Like the fictional TARDIS itself, this project has proven to be much bigger on the inside. We began with math and science goals, but look at the other subject headings! Consumer ethics, assessing materials, motor skills… these are topics that won’t be tested by most standardized tests, yet they are essential in helping children develop as critical thinkers and global, thoughtful citizens. This is one of the many benefits of project based learning: it can help us as teachers create a more practical and forward-thinking education for our children.
For more information on our TARDIS project, including step-by-step photos with instructions on how to build your own, click here.
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