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Science Kids on the Loose

Science Kids on the Loose

Helping One Little Girl Love Engineering

Have you ever stepped out of your bedroom and into a spider web made out of pot holder loops? Or realized that the jar of cookies you thought was out of reach, up in a cupboard is now on the counter, and empty?
I have. These things happen when you introduce little girls like my daughter India to engineering – to solving problems using science. India wants to know how structures work, or how to make up for being a very short person in a world built for big people. And I love helping her discover the answers to these questions.
India wanted to build her own spider web after hearing Charlotte the spider from the book Charlotte’s Web declare, “Not many creatures can spin webs.” (Not all the kids in our family can read, so we sometimes listen to audio books in our car.) India wanted to know: Could she build a spider web even though she wasn’t a spider and didn’t have spinnerets or “know-how”? Could she catch things in a web, too?
So we brainstormed. I asked her what materials might make a good web since she couldn’t use spider silk. She came up with several hypotheses or educated guesses. First she tried rope, but it was too thick. Then she tried sewing thread, but it was too thin. Ribbons were too slippery and wiki sticks were too stiff and sticky. Finally, India discovered a stash of potholder loops in her big sister’s closet – and found that they are stretchy and pliable and strong, perfect for tying together.
Now that she had her “spider silk,” India had to figure out how to build a web that could catch something. She realized that tying a string of potholder loops from one point to another just made … a line. So I told her my hypothesis – that adding a third point might help. It worked! Once India’s first two-point string was tied to a second string that came from another direction, she had herself a frame and could weave a bigger web, which was so exciting that she started weaving webs all over our house, and our family quickly learned to look down before we entered a room so we didn’t get “caught.”
India doesn’t like being the shortest person in our house. We can all do things – can all reach things – that she cannot. She asked me if she could please grow faster, and I told her that I was so sorry but she’d have to grow the regular way like all the bigger people around her did. But, I reassured her, that didn’t mean she couldn’t do a lot of the things the big people around her do, using simple machines like the pulleys and levers she’d seen on Sid the Science Kid. And I asked if maybe she could think about other ideas for overcoming her height challenges?
She said she would. And she did. Behold India’s Super Hands! Her hypothesis was that if she had longer arms, then she could reach the things she wanted even if her actual height did not change. She built her Super Hands out of Tinker Toys, and they extend her reach by a good foot or two. Working together, they are grabbers. She uses them to reach things previously beyond her fingertips – jars full of cookies, stuffed animals, books, DVDs. She can also turn off light switches designed for taller people. Even better — she is proud of herself each time she gets to be more independent. Thank you, engineering!
Because India sees engineering as a way to get minor superpowers, she is excited about engineering week on Sid the Science Kid. I suspect she’ll also want to celebrate engineering week with silly activities like figuring out how to make a fake bee buzzer. We’ll make an effort as a family to observe how engineering makes our life easier in lots of little ways, using Sid’s Another Way to Slide investigation. Like most things that involve exploring science with my kids, it will be fun and I’m looking forward to it.
Have your kids ever approached an engineering problem in a way that really surprised you? How are you going to celebrate Engineering Week with your kids?
Shannon Des Roches Rosa’s writings and opinions on parenting have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, SF Weekly, Autism Speaks, SF Gate, and Shot of Prevention. She has been blogging about parenting and autism since 2003 at, is’s contributing editor for parenting kids with special needs, and is a co-founder and editor at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. She, her handsome husband, and their three capricious children live near San Francisco.

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