To brainstorm ideas for a magnet exploration I turned to one of the Exploratorium’s secret little archives of activity ideas, Paul Doherty’s personal website. He has a whole giant section on magnets with tons of interesting demos and experiments. Click Here to take a look at it.
I have been wanting to play around with one of these activities The Garden Of Magnets, for a long time now, because I love thinking about the way that simple systems can create complex patterns and interactions and this seemed like a perfect example. To make a floating magnet garden all you do is make a set of foam circles and attach a magnet to each one so that they all have the same orientation (I put staples in the foam and stuck each magnet to the staples so it would stay on the raft).
When I floated all my magnets in the water I was fascinated by the way they interacted with each other. Their behavior seemed to me to have a lot of personality, so at one point I added eyes to rafts and watched as they all moved over to give each other space, just like people do! Then I discovered that if I put one magnet in with the opposite orientation from all the others I got very different results. Eventually the rebel magnet would cause the entire system to collapse on itself, with all the magnets flipping over and grabbing onto each other until they were just one big pile and half the water had splashed onto the table!
Another interesting thing I noticed about this experiment is that the tone of this video became very important to me. I really wanted it to feel strange, and I wanted the little magnet rafts to come across as animate. I started this activity because I was interested in what it might show me about magnetic fields and how they interact, but in the end the narrative was what kept me playing with them for so long. A big part of taking time to try new experiences as a learner is to retain your ability to empathize with your visitors and students, and at the moment I’m finding it really easy to understand why narrative making opportunities get emphasized so much when we talk about exhibit and activity design.
I loved Cale’s tinfoil sculptures so much I decided to share the post on the Exploratorium blog. It inspired one of our staff to share a photo of one of her son’s tin foil sculptures back with me. I was both touched that she felt inspired to share this piece of art and impressed with the expressiveness this 8 year old breathed into his sculpture. The artist was once an Explainer and is now working on a masters in art in Yale. You can see he’s got the touch.
When I was an Explainer I always carried magnets around in my pocket, but oddly enough the main thing I did with them was demonstrate their ineffectiveness. When kids were asked “why do you think that’s happening,” one of the number one answers I heard was “magnets,” even at exhibits that had nothing what-so-ever to do with magnets. I would then pull out my magnets and let the kids test their idea.
it didn’t occur to me at the time, but looking back I realize that listening to common misconceptions like this one can reveal a lot about children’s deep understanding of phenomenon. As a thought experiment I decided to revisit the number one exhibit that attracted misplaced magnet theories and see if I could make some hypotheses about what those children were thinking. Here’s what I noticed:
1) This table is made of metal, a material that can be easily magnetized. Perhaps the children are aware of this phenomenon and associate metals with magnetism.
2) The rolling objects are round and black, just like some of the most common magnets found in science kits and on refrigerators. Perhaps the children associate round black objects, particularly ones with holes in them, with magnets.
3) The rolling objects tilt at an angle that appears to defy gravity. Perhaps the children suspect magnets when they encounter materials that seem to cause gravity defiance, because they know a magnet can be used to suspend objects that would otherwise fall.
I now plan on spending some time lurking near Turn table to see if I can find any magnet-confused subjects to test my theories on. This thought experiment has reminded me that underneath an incorrect answer there is often a correct idea worth digging for.
Hey there, I just wanted to mention, in response to a couple questions I received, that if you didn’t get a chance to post about any of the previous challenges and you still want to, it’s not too late! If you experimented with any of these things, anytime, in any way, then we want to hear about it.
Sadly, the summer is almost over, and thus the summer exploration guild is also approaching it’s end. Let’s go out with a bang. Here’s our last adventure.
This past week I got to take a tour of a very special place, LIGO, in Louisiana. LIGO stands for laser interferometer gravitational wave observatory, and the scientists there are looking for perturbations in space time by pointing extremely powerful lasers through huge vacuum tubes several miles long. By comparing the length of the laser through two different arms, the scientists are hoping to see a ripple in space emanating from massive stellar collisions. The photo above shows just a tiny piece of their enormous, cutting edge, and very spiffy equipment.
The other thing that’s interesting about Louisiana’s LIGO is that they have an awesome education center populated by Exploratorium exhibits.
The other thing that’s interesting about them (and now I’m getting to the point here), is that they use tin foil all over the place, and not just any tin foil, expensive scientist tinfoil that lacks the thin film of oil which ordinary tinfoil is coated with to prevent it from sticking to itself. When I asked one of the scientists what the tin foil was for she said something along the lines of “I don’t know, some people around here just seem to think everything should be wrapped in tin foil.” Hmm…. strange, but interesting.
For the next two weeks we will be exploring a wonderfully sculptable, reflective, electric, and oh so useful new material: tin foil. Have at it explorers!