Advanced Projects

All those years of projects and crafts and science experiments with vinegar and baking soda is finally paying off. Today while doing dishes...

Advanced projects

We have an old set of rules that govern getting out of math. I've never spoken these rules, but I think my kids know them.

  • Rule #1 - You can get out of doing math if you do a project of any kind.
  • Rule #2 - If you stall or defer math by reading a book, I won't bother you.
  • Rule #3 - Neither of these rules in any way impact the 'No math, no computer' rule.

Recently my son and I found ourselves staring at each other from opposite ends of the hall way, me rubbing my fingers above a math book, and him slowly reaching a hand into the project closet. He won the duel. I added a corollary to rules #1. If you're going to do a project in the kitchen while I'm trying to eat breakfast, I'm going to up the ante.

How to make candles

The first step in making candles is getting out the candle making kit that we got him when he was the inappropriate age of 6 or 7. Our candle making kit is in the closet with two dozen other age inappropriate kits of all kinds. You can get directions and ingredients on the web and under your kitchen sink for projects, if you prefer, saving you hundreds of dollars.

A bit of science

The next step in making candles is for me to remove as much fun as I possibly can from the activity by turning it into a hard core science project. The only thing I could come up with on such short notice is emulsifiers, since we're combing wax and peppermint oil (don't know why), which probably don't combine. Unfortunately, there was only enough wax left for 3 little candles and we don't stock emulsifiers, with the possible exception of the spray I use to loosen up rusty screws. Instead of charting the results of 30 different recipes, we had to think through not screwing up our one recipe. I call this the NASA approach.

What is the melting point of wax? According to our constant companion wikipedia, parafin wax melts at 320 degrees or so. According to our thermometer, our wax melted at about 160 degrees. What explains the difference? Our wax is obviously not parafin wax. Thinking in action.

Mr. Science wanted dye, but all we had was food coloring. We thought about emulsification, and decided not to risk food coloring. Peppermint oil was risky enough.

Once again, the magic of vocabulary saves the day. If I would have said 'wax melts at 320 degrees', we probably would have boiled the wax and ruined the candles. Knowing the term 'emulsifier' made us skeptical of adding anything to the wax. In 18 months, during the summer before 7th grade, I'll demonstrate taking the Vocabulary Approach to it's insane conclusion. For now, we start everything with vocab.

The difference 7 years make

We've been doing crafts and projects for many years. If I could sum up Postulate One of my pedagogy, it's that learning takes place doing projects and it doesn't take place reading a book, for most subjects, most kids, most of the time. Our school program is all projects all the time. I once asked my oldest how he learns science concepts if all they do are science labs. 'Once a month my teacher hands out a few definitions or makes us read something for about 15 minutes. Then it's more lab work.'

A few years ago, I would have watched my child spend 15 minutes doing nothing in response to being asked to put away the dishes. Putting away the dishes is a daunting task, what with all those individual dishes. Which one to select first? Now, I've got a dish putting away machine. Same with candle production sans directions (couldn't find them). Instead of being lost in the steps as would have been the case a few years ago, he was brainstorming how to upsell his candles. Here is the result.

A note on problem solving skills

When I teach higher order problem solving skills, the lower order problem solving skills like algorithms and solution strategies tend to emerge on their own, with a few exceptions. When you do projects at home, the higher order problem solving skills emerge on their own. Think about that. Projects provide the best learning environment for higher order problem solving skills. Really hard new math problems are a close second.

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