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Understanding Concepts around Balancing, by creating Prototypes

The GenWise 365 session on Aug 19, 2018 conducted by Ramjee Swaminathan and K Muralidhar was part of our ‘Technology, Design and Making’ track. The philosophy of this track is that children learn best when they are actively solving practical problems. When they are working with their minds and hands in unison, visualizing possibilities, going through cycles of prototype making, and debugging – iterating via failures, fixing and ultimately coming out with a product or an idea that works, science, craft and engineering all come together.

The context of making objects that balance themselves was used in this session. Though the older students had some familiarity with the scientific concepts of centre of mass, centre of gravity, point of support and moments, the challenges posed required them to go much deeper than textbook knowledge of these concepts. For example, students were asked to stand with their heels and back touching the wall, and then to pick up something from the ground without bending their knees. At first, some felt this would be easy, but as they attempted this and failed, they were compelled to think about why they were unable to do this.

As they went through other making challenges that involved these concepts, they first played around with the materials, trying out different ideas- changing shapes, adding and removing material. Doing this involved learning some basic skills like cutting of simple patterns in cardboard, use of a paper cutter, cutting and bending of wires using cutting pliers etc. As they analyzed the ideas that failed and worked, students started getting a sense of how ‘balancing’ works and started feeling some of the thrill of discovery and invention.

Through reflection and discussion, students started developing a scientific appreciation at the end of the session that for something to “ balance “ the centre of mass has to be in vertical alignment with the point of support and an object can be balanced by manipulating the point of support or the centre of mass. This of course needs further work on the part of the students to be deeply internalized.

More photos of the session are available towards the end of this post.

Tips, Resources and further activities for Students

Making things can be a joy in itself and you could explore making different objects like windchimes, mobiles, a double cone roller that moves up (as shown in here) or a wheel that rolls up an incline (do you think that’s possible?). Avoid googling how to do this for a start, and try and do this on your own (or better still with a couple of interested friends or your parents). Many things can be built using simple materials available at home or things that can easily be purchased. Take your father’s or mother’s help to get some basic materials and tools like cardboard, scissors, pliers, paper cutters, glue etc.- be careful though while using sharp tools and do your work in the presence of an adult. After you have tried enough (sometimes you will succeed, and sometimes you will need a hint), it is ok to google how others have done this. There will still be a lot of learning in doing things yourself, even if there’s a youtube video on this! You can write to us if you are stuck and need help, or show off by sharing a video of your contraption!

If you are in higher grades, and have learnt geometry and trigonometry, you could investigate what kind of geometry is needed for the double cone roller to move up an incline? (e.g. will this work for all angles of the conical roller?)

If challenges in Physics excite you, a great resource is the book ‘The Flying Circus of Physics’ by Jearl Walker. Here are some interesting questions about ‘Leaning tower of blocks’ from the book. Answering these questions requires trying out things physically and also some mathematical ingenuity.

Using blocks, books, dominoes, cards, coins, or any other set of identical objects, construct a stack that extends from the edge of a table. For a given number of objects, what arrangement gives the maximum overhang (the horizontal distance from the table’s edge to the farthest point on the stack)? Suppose that the objects are dominoes with a length L. How many are needed to give an overhang of L? How about 3L?

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