By Sheldon Greaves, Ph.D.
When you are a newbie learning how to do science or construct science projects, it is simply essential that you have someone you can turn to with questions, or who is willing to look over your shoulder and make little suggestions that will save you a lot of time and trouble in the future. There are only a few constants in the world that rise to the level of death and taxes. Science has a few, one of which is that sometimes it takes half an hour to do something that seems trivial, such as putting in a screw. Other times a tiny, ill-considered decision will throw an entire experiment into chaos.
When I was about eight, my parents took my younger brothers and I to Portland, Oregon to visit the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), a place that became one of my favorite destinations for years afterwards. While taking the obligatory walk through the gift area, I saw a very cool-looking kit for making a working electric motor. After some lobbying, my folks bought it for me and I took it home eager to get started. To an eight-year old, it was a pretty cool thing. The kit was beautifully packaged, with lots of well-made plastic and metal pieces and a large instruction sheet. I wasnâ€™t intimidated by this; I had already built several plastic models with at least as many steps. I spread the parts out on a dining room counter that doubled as my workspace and set to work. As I got ready to wind the armatures, I noticed that the instructions said to â€œremove all the lacquer from the wires.â€ Iâ€™m sure the intent was that I remove all the lacquer from the ends of the wires, but not knowing any better and, being a bit literal about reading instructions I got some sandpaper from the garage and foot by foot, dutifully removed the coating from the whole spool of wire. Obviously, this project did not end up where I wanted it to go.
A few months later on a subsequent visit to OMSI, I managed to persuade my parents that I could build the kit correctly, having learned from what went wrong the last time (which was true enough). They indulged me with another of the same kit, and this time, working carefully and not being to doctrinaire about the instructions, I built a very nice-looking motor that looked just like the one on the box. Everything looked right, except for one thing; it didnâ€™t work. It would buzz briefly, twitch as though irritated, and then obstinately sit there. Giving the armature a spin would be good for a couple of revolutions, about as much as it did when no power was flowing. Â I donâ€™t know what was wrong. My father suggested that maybe the shaft was bent making it hard for the motor to turn. I fiddled with it and eventually shelved the project without success.
In spite of this I still liked learning about anything scientific, including electricity, so my folks got me into a short series of night classes on basic electricity sponsored by Portland General Electric, our local utility. It was a great class. I saw my first Tesla coil and other electrical delights. The teachers were grizzled veterans of the electrical trade who knew a tremendous amount about the subject.
The last project for the class was for each of us to build an electric motor. (â€œUh-oh,â€ I thought.) But this time there was no kit in a brightly colored box. Instead we each received a mimeographed sheet of instructions and a paper bag filled with a roll of wire, a roll of electrical tape, a small board for a base, and an assortment of nails of different types and sizes. To say that I was dubious about the outcome of this venture was an understatement, but I drew some confidence from the fact that if I failed, I could blame my instructors for setting me up with such an improbable assignment. The difference this time was that there were people who would look over my shoulder and offer pointers, or to whom I could go with questions. Incidentally, if you want to replicate this project with some young budding scientist or engineer, the web site Bizzare Stuff (http://bizarrelabs.com/motor2.htm) has the instructions for this classic project that hails (not surprisingly) from the 1950s.
I worked as carefully as I could to make the project look neat, but it still looked like a total mess. One of the instructors ran a critical eye over it, silently nodded, and then hooked it up to a couple of dry cell batteries with a knife switch. Nervously I threw the switch and, to my everlasting astonishment, it ran. This cobbled-together refugee from a hardware store spun merrily away while I stared in slack-jawed wonder as shock made way for triumph.
Obviously, my earlier failed attempts helped with the last successful one. I knew at least generally what was supposed to happen and why, but later I realized that having someone there to navigate me through all the little details helped a lot. It also made me realize that science does not come in a kit. It is a process that lives with whatever is to hand, and although one is sometimes forced to â€œmake doâ€ or put things off until the necessary parts are available, it is understanding the underlying principles that make science projects happenâ€”or not. Failures have their lessons to teach, not all of them wrapped in a shroud of humiliation. The beginning scientist, young or old, must develop a healthy attitude toward failure.
Today we are once again awash in science kits of certain genres. Thanks to the Maker community, electronics kits are especially prevalent (chemistry sets still need to catch up). This is a good thing. But sometimes I also wonder if something gets lost when we get to far away from the â€œold schoolâ€ of hands on science when new kits that make it so easy. No matter. The fact is that there is still plenty to do with bits and bobs in the garage or basement. If you master the fundamentals, the rest will followâ€¦ eventually.