Hi Victor,

It was a pleasure coming to Junto a couple of weeks back and chatting with you. I've been very impressed with how easily it is to speak to people and how willing they are to share their thoughts and insights. It's a great resource. Finally, I wanted to say thanks for adding me to SPEC list; it seem to be wonderfully rich living dialog, and I am learning a lot, even if many of the conversations still are beyond my knowledge level at this point.

I've been thinking a bit about our conversation after dinner at Junto a couple of weeks back about how you might foster your son Aubrey's interest in things mechanical. You have done the obvious things of getting him all of the construction and science toy sets and the like. My dad was quick to notice my interest in mechanical stuff, and, to a large degree, really helped to get me to take the career path that I did. Thus here is a potpourri of other thoughts that I wanted to pass along to you.

Before I make my own recommendations, I thought I would pass along some thoughts from my father, who, by chance we visited last week in Ohio, and I asked him about his thoughts on your question. He said that with me he always tried to encourage exploring without being too quick to interject, e.g., in taking something apart with the very real chance that it will be broken for good. He felt it important to let the exploration process happen naturally with a minimum of intervention, with the idea that the child makes-and learns from-his own mistakes, trials, and tribulations. In essence, then, he took a Libertarian view.

In terms of my own thoughts, one thing that I bet Aubrey would really enjoy doing is taking some things apart to see how they work. Great candidates for this kind of thing include, in no particular order, kitchen scales, motorized toys especially with gears and such, CD, cassette or VCR players, old mechanical clocks, old inkjet printers or computers, and the like. He'll need some simple tools to do this with, and, of course, he would have to be supervised for many of these activities, but I would guess he would love the process of exploring and understanding as he takes things apart. I always did. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he was able to get many of them back together again in working condition.

An interesting twist on the above would be to give him a simple object that doesn't work and see if he can fix it, preferably by taking it apart. I realize he's at a pretty young age, but it might be worth a try. You could even "rig" things so that the repair was fairly obvious, then gradually make it more challenging.

Another thought would be to take him to a museum of science and industry. My parents took me to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago when I was 11 or 12 and it changed my life:

I realize Aubrey is a little young, but this still could be a very impressive and entertaining experience for him. To that end, there is a children's museum of science and technology in Troy, NY. Here is a reference to the New York Hall of Science in Queens. I've never been there, but it might be worth a look. There may be several others in New York City, and would be worth looking into if you haven't done so already.

Consider also an aviation or automobile museum. There are some local, I believe. If you are ever in Dayton, OH, there is a spectacular military aircraft museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Chris Tucker may know of others (as well as science museums for that matter; he has been to several around town with his kids).

Another simple thing to do would be to take him to a local hardware store like Home Depot or Lowes or even a craft store. There's a lot of fun mechanical stuff in those places, and they also have the raw materials to make all manner of things. If nothing else, it's easy to do and you could gauge his interest in various things to see what he likes most.

You mentioned that Aubrey likes structures. My all-time favorite structures are (in this order):

1. The Hoover Dam

2. Arch of St. Louis (Gateway Arch)

3. Eiffel Tower

4. Washington Monument

5. Sears Tower

A trip to any of these would probably be an absolute delight for him. Oftentimes these places will have museums on the structure, and you can get kits or books or videos at the local gift shops there that could further his learning and interest.

Other things to look for include films/and documentaries on the above structures. For example, I saw a very interesting show about a suspension bridge that was built in Europe somewhere (Norway maybe?) and they assembled the bridge section by section, building off of the previous sections. The film chronicled the building construction over time and also highlighted some of the technical challenges and behind the issues that the engineers faced. It was a great show.

Some other things that I have always been fascinated with, even as a kid, that he might also find interesting:

. Power plants - there is just about everything in one of these, and everything is super-sized.
. Mechanical Equipment rooms in buildings of all kinds with pumps, ducts, pipes, valves, gages, and control systems. To this day I still love this kind of thing.
. Water towers, especially the kind where the tank is suspended off the ground with legs - I can't tell you why I liked these so much, but I always did, and there was one close to our house in Ohio when I was a kid.
. Factories- again, there is just about everything here: robots, assembly lines, machining operations of all kinds, conveyer belts, hydraulics, pneumatics, electirc motors, sensors, etc. Factories are usually very densely packed, so you can see a lot in a small space.
. Dams- perhaps it's their sheer size, or the enormous amount of water that they hold, but there is something incredibly captivating about a dam. It's no coincidence that Hoover Dam is my single most favorite structure.
. Cars and engines - Underneath the hood of a modern car is a marvel of engineering. Just to see the belts turning and fans spinning might be very enjoyable. Obviously use caution.
. Bridges - I've always liked them, although they never captivated me as much as some of the other things above. Still, they are impressive structures, and there are a bunch around the greater New York area to have a look at. It might be worth looking into possible tours of any of the bridges.
Yet another great resource are any number of TV shows: There is one called "How It's Made", by the Science Discovery channel. that covers everything from soft drinks to fiberglass to fire hydrants. I've seen it several times and have enjoyed every show. Info is here:

Then there is the web. A site that I have sent my own students to on several occasions is called "How Stuff Works." They usually have nice graphics to describe all manner of devices and mechanisms. It might be a bit advanced for him now, but he could certainly look at the pictures and animations.

Finally, you mentioned in passing a tutor of some kind. One thought might be to hire an engineering student or physics student to spend some time with Aubrey, say once every week or two, or to come for a week during the summer. Many students post flyers offering their services for tutoring and the like around Campus, and they are always interested in making a few bucks. Columbia and CUNY have good engineering programs, as does Polytechnic. It would take a bit of effort to get the right person, but if and when you did, it could be a great experience.

All thoughts welcome. If I think of other things that would be useful, I'll gladly pass them along if interested.

Jon Longtin, Ph.D.

Associate Professor and Undergraduate Program Director

Department of Mechanical Engineering

Rocky Humbert writes:

things of scienceDoes anyone know whether there is a successor to "Things of Science?"

My parents subscribed my brother and me to this in the 1960s. Each month a little blue box would arrive in the mail with genuine hands-on scientific experiments suitable for children. It was a much simpler time (before the internet, etc.) but the program whet our appetite and contributed to our both pursuing engineering/science in college, graduate school and beyond. 

Jonathan Bower adds:

This is one of my favorite "toys" for learning.





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