Kids Learn the Lost Art of Tinkering

The Juneau Economic Development Council has started a weekly program to help kids learn how to tinker with things. Its called “The Saturday Thing.”

Ethan Madsen is seven years old – almost eight – and a regular at “the Saturday Thing.”

“I built a rocket. I kind of mess around with recycling and put it together and see what I can build,” he says.

On a recent weekend Madsen is busy building a robotic arm that will be powered by four separate motors.

“The one is for the fingers to open and close, the other is for the wrist, the next is for the elbow joint, and the last is the base motor that will allow it to move,” Madsen explains.

Since September JEDC has offered “the Saturday Thing” every weekend at its STEM Education office. STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering and Math. JEDC Education Specialist Bob Vieth says the kids who attend the program are exposed to a little bit of everything.

“We do chemistry we do force and motion, physics, magnetism, electricity, optics, engineering – how things go together – gear ratios, it’s just across the board,” Vieth says.

Every week Vieth comes up with a different scientific concept to explore, but mostly “the Saturday Thing” is opportunity for kids to tinker with things.

“It’s kind of a lost art. And you can learn so much through tinkering. You can learn about how things work, why things work, explore scientific questions, phenomena,” he says.

What is tinkering, exactly? Vieth says it involves building things and taking things apart.

“We’ve got vacuum cleaners for kids to take apart and look at how they work. Kids can take apart computers and look at how they work. Just taking apart stuff is a learning experience in and of itself,” says Vieth.

So what’s the plan for Ethan Madsen’s robotic arm when he’s done building it?

“Mr. Bob he wants to put it in the window and just have it move around, maybe pick up a few things and move them around,” says Madsen.

Ethan’s dad, Andy – an electrical engineer – says “the Saturday Thing” has been a great opportunity for the whole family to experiment, learn and of course tinker.

“He’s learned how to sauter down here, and they build rockets, and Bob has a launcher, so we’ve gone next door and launched the rockets,” says Andy Madsen. “My two year old daughter even comes down with us and she sits and works on Legos and so everybody is invited. Nobody is turned away.”

“The Saturday Thing” is free. Because Vieth is the only staff member there, it’s limited to 10 kids per week. Vieth says donations of items for kids to tinker with are always appreciated.

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Casey Kelly is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.