Simple Engineering Projects for Kids: A Pet Bed

Thinking creatively is the foundation to good design. You never know what ideas you might come up with, and inspiration can be found anywhere.

I’ve been the proud parent of a chocolate labrador named Gemma for over a year now. At first, Gemma had a hard time getting used to her crate. She is a strong dog, and she likes to chew things. I came home one day and discovered that Gemma had shredded into the pillow in her crate. Stuffing was everywhere. When the problem repeated itself, I knew I needed to come up with a different plan. As an engineer, I know that common problems have creative solutions. I set to work to design a better pet bed.

A dog sits amid a chewed pillow. Text reads "Common problems have creative solutions"

The challenge with making any kind of mattress is to make sure that the materials are flexible enough to cushion what rests on top. I knew I wanted to use a material that would not make a mess if, and when, my dog chewed through it. Eventually I decided on stuffing two t-shirts with clothes I was no longer wearing. I improved the design by positioning the shirts so that the head of one shirt was on the same side of the bottom of the other shirt. Gemma has been resting comfortably in her crate for months now because I took the time to come up with a better solution.

How could you make a pet bed? Could you design a portable bed that made lying on the floor more comfortable? How might a bed for a cat or dog be different from a bed for a person?

Inventions happen when people see a problem and create a solution. If you would like to encourage a young inventor you know, check out the Curiosity Effect’s Inventing adventure!

Simple Engineering Projects for Kids: The Ultimate Fort

Some engineering projects are gifts that keep on giving. A question like “How can I make the ultimate fort?” can keep kids and grown-ups engaged for a long time.

At first glance, designing a fort seems deceptively simple. What’s so complex about throwing a blanket over four chairs and calling it a day? What makes designing a fort to be a worthy engineering project?

Text "The Ultimate Fort" with an image of a girl reading in a blanket fort supported by chairs.

Truth be told, even the simplest of forts have a good deal of engineering complexity. What makes the fort stable? Is the fort large enough for all of the activities it should house? And the big question: Is the fort tall enough?

Experimenting with different ways to make a tall fort involves a lot of engineering. Does your fort use a center pole to go for maximum height? What holds the center pole in place? Can you make the center pole sturdy enough to withstand someone bumping into it? If you are using a blanket to make a roof, how can you keep the roof from sagging? What kind of support structures do you need? Can you give your fort doors and windows?

Are you building your fort inside or outside? What kind of materials are best to use in an outdoor fort? What activities would you want to do in an outdoor fort? Are they same set of activities as in an indoor fort? How would your fort design change if you built the fort on a hill instead of a flat surface?

Changing the questions are a great way to breathe new life into an engineering project. If you’d like some more insight about how you can help your kids ask great engineering questions, check out my free guide Every Parent’s Guide to Creative Projects.

Simple Engineering Projects for Kids: Clothing Costumes

I think too often we get stuck on coming up with engineering projects that have supply lists and tools. An engineer’s most important tool is their imagination. Innovation can be found by looking at the same objects in new ways.

Many of my favorite engineering projects are creating clothing costumes. Our closets can be full of inspiration. When we ask questions like, “How can I wear this piece of clothing in a different way?” or “What are the best options to make a cape?” we’re releasing our inner engineer. Towels, bedsheets, and dishwashing gloves take on a new character when we loan them out to our imagination.

 Two kids sport their superhero costumes. "Clothing Costumes" is written in white on a dark blue strip.

We can ask questions about the items of clothing itself:

  • How many different ways could I use a belt in my costume?
  • What if I cannot put my shirt on by pulling it over my head?

We can ask questions about the things that inspire us:

  • What could I use to make a tail?
  • What would need to happen to create a successful elephant costume?

We can also ask questions about our goals for our costumes:

  • What is the best way to stay warm outside if I do not want to put on a coat?
  • How could I choose colors that help me camouflage myself?
  • What costume is best if I want to be able to run super fast?

All of these questions (and more!) are engineering kinds of questions. If you’d like some more insight about how you can help your kids ask great engineering questions, check out my free guide Every Parent’s Guide to Creative Projects.

 

Simple Engineering Projects for Kids: An Indoor Frisbee

Hello, hello! As the holiday season gets into full swing, I thought I’d load up the blog with a lot of gifts for you and your family. I’m going to sharing a lot of simple engineering projects for kids that do not require any special materials.

A good engineering project starts with a good question. Since it’s getting colder outside, I wondered about bringing outdoor games inside. As I thought about simple projects that are also fun, I asked, “What if we could create an indoor frisbee?”

Two part image. On the left: A young child plays outside with an orange Frisbee. On the right: Text reads Everyday Curiosity - Design an indoor Frisbee above the Opportunity Unlocked logo

Getting our inventing juices flowing by combining two different ideas (being inside and Frisbee) helps us continue to think outside of the box. What can I use to make my Frisbee? The traditional hard plastic is out because it won’t work well inside. I want to throw something that can float through the air. I might practice by seeing if other lids fly well around the house. I may try covering cardboard with different materials. I might test throw different kinds of pillows to see if any of them have frisbee potential. I could experiment with different kinds of paper. Engineers work with the materials that they have to explore their ideas. Actively brainstorming ideas does not need to be a pen-and-pencil activity.

After testing a bunch of different materials, we can choose the material combinations that seem the most promising and work to refine the design. I chose to use paper plates and tape in my design, just because that seemed like the most fun. The difference between a good engineering project for kids and a great engineering project for kids is that the great projects encourage kids to keep exploring. You know a kid is unto something good when they ask a question, tinker with different materials, ask another question that builds on earlier questions, and start tinkering again.

As I continued to work on my indoor frisbee, I explored questions like:

  • What happens if I cut out different shapes from the middle?
  • How will adding weight to one side change how my frisbee flies?
  • Can I attach plates in different ways?
  • Is a smaller frisbee better for indoor play?

I’d love to hear more about your indoor engineering adventures in the comments! If you’re looking for more great ways to encourage kids to go from big idea to doable project, grab a copy of Every Parent’s Guide to Creative Projects.

Does your vote count? A closer look at asking statistical questions and the Electoral College

Hello my friends! Today I wanted to dive into talking a bit about the Electoral College and voter representation in the United States. I recently saw a picture going around Facebook that compared the electoral power of Wyoming to California. Wyoming, with 247 thousand people, has the smallest state population but has three votes in the Electoral College. California, with 28,357 thousand people, has the largest state population and only has 55 votes in the Electoral College. Because 247/3 is much, much bigger than 28357/55, voters in Wyoming have a lot more power than voters in California. But there are 48 other states and the District of Columbia to consider when asking a question like “Does your vote count?”

I wanted to dig in a bit more to answering this question, so I found a spreadsheet from the US Census Bureau that has information about each state’s total population (which includes people who aren’t citizens yet), the number of citizens who live in each state, the number of people who registered to vote, and the number of people who actually voted in the 2012 election. I chose the 2012 election because more people tend to vote in Presidential elections. (It takes time for statisticians to make this kind of spreadsheet, so the 2016 numbers are not yet available.) So, what do the numbers say?

Any time we are trying to analyze statistics, we need to be careful about the question we ask. There are a lot of different ways to look at the numbers. To analyze voting data, I looked at different ratios. Specifically, I looked at the number of people represented by one electoral vote. When this number is small, you have a lot of voting power. When this number is big, you have less voting power.

Which state’s population has the most voting power?

The United State Census counts everyone who lives in the state. This number is used to decide how many electoral votes a particular state gets. There are 235,248 thousand people living in the United States. If you divide that number by 538, you get a little over 437 thousand people per electoral vote nationwide. 18 states have less voting power than the national average. If you live in New York, you have the largest ratio. The state’s population of 15,066 thousand divided by 29 electoral votes means that you have approximately 520 thousand people represented by one electoral vote. The top ten states with the lowest voting power are (in order): New York, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, Illinois, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. If you live in Wyoming, you have the smallest ratio. The state’s population of 427 thousand people divided by 3 electoral votes means that you have approximately 142 thousand people represented by one electoral vote. The top ten areas with the highest voting power are (in order): Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, District of Columbia, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Delaware, Hawaii, and Montana.

Okay, but which state’s citizenry has the most influence over the election?

Electoral votes are assigned based on population, but in order to have your vote count, you need to be a citizen of the United States. There are 20 million people who live in the United States who are not citizens. When you look at the number of citizens in a state, the voting power changes. If you live in Ohio, you have the largest ratio of number of citizens to electoral votes. There are 8,550 thousand citizens living in Ohio represented by the state’s 18 electoral votes. This means that 475 thousand citizens are represented by one electoral vote. The top ten list also changes order where some of the states change. Now the top ten states with the lowest voting power are (in order): Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Illinois, Missouri, Virginia, and Massachusetts. I found a similar shift when I looked at the states with the most voting power. Once again, Wyoming leads the list with the smallest ratio. Wyoming has 419 thousand citizens, meaning that approximately 140 thousand people are represented by one electoral vote. The new list of places with highest voting power are (in order): Wyoming, District of Columbia, Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Delaware, Hawaii, and New Hampshire.

But wait. If I am talking about the power of my vote, I need to know how registered voters can impact the election.

When I looked at the number of registered voters, the nationwide count changed significantly. Only 71% of citizens in the United States are registered to vote. Looking at data across the entire United States, there are approximately 285 thousand registered voters for every electoral vote. The state of North Carolina has 5,295 thousand registered voters who are represented by 15 electoral votes. This means that 353 thousand registered voters make up 1 electoral vote. Looking at the number of registered voters per electoral vote, the top 10 states are (in order): North Carolina, Michigan, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia, Illinois, and Florida. Because voter registration is reasonably consistent, the list of high power voters doesn’t change much. Wyoming leads the list, followed by Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Delaware, and Nebraska.

The only way to have power as a voter is to vote. Which state’s voters have the most power?

Approximately 132,948,000 people voted in the 2012 election, meaning that there were just over 247 thousand voters for every electoral vote. Surprisingly, the state of Wisconsin emerges as the state with the lowest voting power. 3,127 thousand voters cast ballots in 2012 to decide the state’s 10 electoral votes. This means that approximately 313 thousand voters were represented by one electoral vote. Looking at the number of voters per electoral vote, the top 10 states are (in order): Wisconsin, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Minnesota, Missouri, and Florida. The states with the most power haven’t changed that much. Wyoming still leads the pack, and is now followed by Alaska, Vermont, North Dakota, District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Hawaii, South Dakota, and West Virginia.

Stepping back from the ratios for a bit, there are twelve areas that come up as having the “most powerful” voters. These areas are Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, District of Columbia, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Hawaii, Delaware, Montana, Nebraska, and New Hampshire. Together, these places have 41 electoral votes and a total population of 8,790 people. They are a combination of rural and urban areas and rarely vote together as a block. When we do any kind of statistical analysis, it is important to ask what the numbers mean and how different numbers relate to one another. When I first saw the image on Facebook, I thought that California would be at the top of one or more lists of the least powerful states. The only list where California was in the top ten states was looking at the total population. The states that appeared on all four “least powerful” voter lists were Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Developing rules about how you want to compare numbers is an important part of statistics.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What math questions leave you wondering? What math questions do you find the most interesting?

 

Everyday Curiosity: Newspapers

White text overlaid on a picture of outdoor newspaper vending machines reads "Did you know that printing presses in 1847 printed 20,000 newspapers per hour?" The banner at the bottom includes the full Opportunity Unlocked logo and "Everyday Curiosity: Because everyday questions should have hands-on answers"Getting information matters. One reason why the internet is so powerful is that we can find out about newsworthy events immediately as they happen. But it has not always been that way. Before the internet, most people got their news from newspapers.

Newspapers need to be printed cheaply and quickly. Even though the printing press was invented in 1440, it wasn’t until the 1800s that printing technology had advanced enough to print daily newspapers. Early printing presses used a flat plate that worked a lot like a big stamp. In the 1830s, inventors started experimenting with cylindrical presses that allowed paper to roll through the machine. This technology drastically reduced the cost of newspapers, allowing publishers of the New York Sun to sell their paper for a penny an issue. The rotary printing press invented by Richard Hoe in 1847 could produce 20,000 newspapers per hour. Hoe received 24 patents between 1842 and 1874 for printing press improvements.

Modern newspapers are printed in color by creating plates for 4 separate colors (black, cyan, yellow, and magenta). Each plate is made from aluminum covered by a plastic coating. Did you know that paper can move through a modern press at nearly 25 miles per hour? Even as more and more people read news delivered over the internet, major US newspapers still circulate over 2 million copies every day.

Everyday Curiosity is a weekly magazine for kids aged 8-14 that explores math, science, and engineering. Each issue asks one big question and has three related hands-on projects to go deeper into the math, science, and engineering behind everyday observations. The projects use supplies that are already in the house or could be found easily at a grocery store, general department store, or (in rare cases) a hardware store. 

Everyday Curiosity: Marbles

White text overlaid on a close-up picture of several marbles reads "Did you know that the first marbles made by a machine were made in the United States?" The banner at the bottom includes the full Opportunity Unlocked logo and "Everyday Curiosity: Because everyday questions should have hands-on answers"So many games can be played with small round balls. We don’t really know who invented marbles because kids have probably always played with nuts, rocks, and small balls made from all kinds of other materials. But did you know that many marbles are made of glass?

Humans first started shaping glass about 5,000 years ago. When you heat glass up in a furnace, you can melt and shape it into many different kinds of shapes. The intricate design you see in many clear glass marbles means that these marbles were likely made by hand by sticking different colors of glass together in a process known as fusing. Glassmiths use a graphite mold to help them make sure that their marbles are round.

In the 19th and 20th century, German glassmiths produced many marbles. A German glass maker had created a special tool that made it easier to create a perfectly round sphere. American inventors transformed marble making by making it possible to use machines. Being able to make perfectly round marbles also helped manufacturers create perfectly round ball bearings.

Everyday Curiosity is a weekly magazine for kids aged 8-14 that explores math, science, and engineering. Each issue asks one big question and has three related hands-on projects to go deeper into the math, science, and engineering behind everyday observations. The projects use supplies that are already in the house or could be found easily at a grocery store, general department store, or (in rare cases) a hardware store. 

Everyday Curiosity: Blenders

White text overlaid on a picture of a blender reads "Did you know that the most powerful blenders use bulletproof glass to make the blender jar?" The banner at the bottom includes the full Opportunity Unlocked logo and "Everyday Curiosity: Because everyday questions should have hands-on answers"When I think about the perfect smoothie or milkshake, I think of a thick frozen river right on the verge of flowing. I love being able to use a spoon or a straw to enjoy my milkshake. Every morning, I make a smoothie before leaving the house.

At first glance, it’s not clear how a blender works. How could the short blades manage to turn a bunch of frozen fruit into a smooth liquid? The sharp blades spin quickly in order to start the process. The blades cut and stir. In order for a mixture to blend, it needs to flow. People will add more water to their mixture in order to make sure that it can flow. When a blender’s blades move through fluids, they create an incredible number of bubbles.

We might not think of bubbles as an ideal way to cut things. However, when bubbles pop because of the fluid pressure, they send a shockwave through the liquid. The faster the blender blades spin, the more bubbles they create. One reason why the blades of blenders are so small compared to the rest of the blender volume is to prevent these shockwaves from damaging the blades. Did you know that the most powerful blenders use bulletproof glass to make the blender jar? The blade tips of these blenders travel at over 270 miles per hour.

The blender was first invented in Wisconsin following the creation of variable speed motors. The first blender patent was awarded in 1924.

Everyday Curiosity is a weekly magazine for kids aged 8-14 that explores math, science, and engineering. Each issue asks one big question and has three related hands-on projects to go deeper into the math, science, and engineering behind everyday observations. The projects use supplies that are already in the house or could be found easily at a grocery store, general department store, or (in rare cases) a hardware store. 

Everyday Curiosity: Crayons

White text overlaid on a picture of a circular container full of crayons reads "Did you know that crayons were among the earliest waterproof markers?" The banner at the bottom includes the full Opportunity Unlocked logo and "Everyday Curiosity: Because everyday questions should have hands-on answers"I like coloring with crayons because so many different crayon colors exist. Did you know that crayons were used as a kind of waterproof marker? Edwin Binney and Harold Smith, the inventors behind Crayola crayons, combined paraffin wax with their carbon black pigment to make black crayons.

It didn’t take long before people started asking for more colors. Teachers wanted their students to be able to use crayons to make art. The challenge was creating pigments that were safe for people. Carbon black came from oil and charcoal. Binney, Smith, and teachers everywhere knew that children would be rubbing their faces while they were coloring with crayons, so all colors needed to be safe. Safe pigments come from ground up rocks.

Originally, crayons came in eight colors. However, we can change the pigment recipe in order to make new colors. Combining safe pigments in different amounts can create new safe pigments. Today, Crayola has made 120 different color crayons.

Everyday Curiosity is a weekly magazine for kids aged 8-14 that explores math, science, and engineering. Each issue asks one big question and has three related hands-on projects to go deeper into the math, science, and engineering behind everyday observations. The projects use supplies that are already in the house or could be found easily at a grocery store, general department store, or (in rare cases) a hardware store. You can win a one-year subscription by entering in the Back to School Giveaway.

Everyday Curiosity: Traffic Lights

White text overlaid on a picture of green light reads "Did you know that the most common traffic light design is protected by a design patent?" The banner at the bottom includes the full Opportunity Unlocked logo and "Everyday Curiosity: Because everyday questions should have hands-on answers"Traffic lights help us stay safe by telling us when we can cross the street. Many traffic lights are signals for drivers and pedestrians alike. Ever since more and more people moved into cities, inventors have worked to reduce the number of traffic accidents.

Traffic signals work on a simple premise: tell people when it is safe to go. The earliest traffic signals used two signals (Stop and Go). The challenge with these signals was that they did not give people time to react. In 1923, Garrett Morgan patented a traffic signal that incorporated three settings. Morgan’s traffic signal included an intermediate setting that stopped all traffic. In Morgan’s design, arms of a T-shaped design folded down to stop traffic in both directions.

When we think of traffic lights, we think of three lights stacked on top of each other. This design came later and uses a design patent. The US Patent and Trademark Office awards design patents when an inventor wants to propose changes to an invention’s appearance. If you see a patent number with the letter ”D” at the beginning, it is a design patent.

Everyday Curiosity is a weekly magazine for kids aged 8-14 that explores math, science, and engineering. Each issue asks one big question and has three related hands-on projects to go deeper into the math, science, and engineering behind everyday observations. The projects use supplies that are already in the house or could be found easily at a grocery store, general department store, or (in rare cases) a hardware store. You can win a one-year subscription by entering in the Back to School Giveaway.