The Gift of Boredom

“Boredom” has only negative connotations, doesn’t it? Is this fair?

I drove from central New Hampshire to northeastern Ohio on the first day of my summer road trip. For many, the idea of driving over 600 miles in a day (alone, no less) is inconceivable. “What do you do for that many hours?” they wonder. Mostly I think. In fact, the first day of a road trip often flies by. I keep a mini legal pad by my side as I drive, and jot down ideas as they pop into my head. (Although I write without looking at the page, my writing is no more illegible than normal…)

On this day, much of my thinking revolved around how a projectile flung out of a rotating disk would behave. I spent hours thinking about this, and built the device after my return home. Hours spent puzzling about how it would behave in different situations has given me a deeper understanding of projectile motion, yet I have still more questions. Perhaps I can pursue these during next summer’s road trip…

Seven hours into my drive I stopped at a Valero gas station in Upstate New York. A television screen mounted in the gas pump played the news. Although this was not the first such television I’d seen, I was suddenly perplexed. Why was the television necessary? Was Valero concerned people needed to be entertained during the few minutes it took to fill a tank?

Really Need Latest News While I’m Filling up!

Last spring my wife, a friend of ours, and I attended author Erik Shonstrom’s talk about his new book Wild Curiosity: How to Unleash Creativity and Encourage Lifelong Wondering. In chapter 10 Shonstrom states that curiosity is “born from boredom”. He quotes psychologist Harry Fowler who said that boredom was one of the “prerequisites” to curiosity. “Boredom”, says Shonstrom, “has a way of first widening the net of our attention. We have the ability, because there’s nothing immediately claiming our attention, to notice things and to notice what we notice”. I love that!



Later in the summer I’d flown to San Francisco. Andy, a childhood friend, and I were enjoying our annual weekend walking trip around the city. I brought up “boredom”. Throughout the summer I had been thinking about this idea. As I shared some opinions with Andy, I suggested that perhaps boredom wasn’t the best term for what I meant.

“I think boredom is the correct term and I agree with much of what you are saying,” Andy told me. Andy has no children, but observes how his friends raise their children. He compares what he sees to how we were raised in the 1970s. He believes many parents feel duty-bound to avoid letting their kids get bored. “When we were kids, our parents expected us to ‘go out and play’—to entertain ourselves. They felt no need to ensure that we were being entertained,” Andy pointed out.

I tend to agree with this. I remember no birthday parties growing up in which I had more than my family and perhaps one or two friends joining me to celebrate. I think most of my friends would say the same thing. (Either that or my friends didn’t invite me to their birthday parties…) Our son is now sixteen. Many years his friends celebrated birthdays with at least half a dozen friends, and a trip to some “entertainment venue”. Why has this changed? Is this necessarily bad? Do parents fear that a birthday without miniature golf or a bouncy house could result in—gasp!—a bored child? Oh my!

I will not purposely bore my students in order to encourage their curiosity. I don’t suggest parents do this either. Still, with their phones always within reach, when do kids today (or adults) have the opportunity to be bored? When do they have the opportunity to widen their nets of attention?

What is the longest drive a child today is expected to endure without a DVD playing or some other electronic device fighting for their attention? An hour? Half an hour? Couldn’t kids make up their own games to pass the time? Remember the alphabet game? Find the letters A to Z on road signs as one drives down the highway. How about the license plate game? Home made auto bingo? What about conversation with family members?

Our friend who joined us at the curiosity book talk has a sister who works at a nature center in Massachusetts. Several years ago, as part of an after school program, she worked at teaching students how to play outdoors! Wow.

“Less is more” is popular mantra in education. It refers to reducing the amount of content a teacher covers so that what is covered is done so thoroughly and deeply. “Less is more” also fits, I believe, with the amount of structured time kids should have.

But this is not the final word. What do you think?

Kids These Days

Kids These Days!

The Project:

For more than 15 years, my sixth grade science-teaching colleagues and I have presented a Mag-Lev (Magnetic Levitation) activity to our students at the end of our magnetism unit. This project challenges students to cut a piece of cardboard to fit between parallel aluminum rails. Students select different numbers and varieties of magnets and tape these to the cardboard. The magnets should rest over strips of magnets on the Mag-Lev track so that they repel from the track’s magnets.

This has always been a highly engaging project for students, but each year students seem to struggle with it more and more. Our rubrics have not changed, so we really are comparing “apples to apples”.


Why the Struggle? (Initial Theory):

Why has this activity become more challenging for students each succeeding year? One theory we’ve come up with is that students’ measurement and cutting skills are eroding. So much of today’s world is virtual our reasoning goes (especially for children), that students rarely create things that require measurement or cutting. Choosing proper magnets won’t help if the cardboard pieces don’t fit neatly between the aluminum rails. To test this theory I invented the Cardboard Ski Jumper activity. Careful measurement and cutting of cardboard is its primary focus. The added complexity of the magnets is removed. The Ski Jumper features a pair of parallel wooden rails that angle down at a 45-degrees. On the inside surfaces of these rails are saw-cut grooves. Students must measure the distance between these grooves, and cut a piece of cardboard to fit into them.



This cardboard needs to slide down the Ski Jump without jamming or falling out. As shown in the photograph, there is a wide spot part way down that students must account for.



Students are allowed to use a ruler to measure as many times as they like, but they cannot bring their cardboard to the Ski Jumper unless it is to test it. Grading is as follows:

A: First piece of cardboard slides all the way down the ramp.

B: Second piece of cardboard slides all the way down the ramp.

C: Third piece of cardboard slides all the way down the ramp.

D: More than three pieces of cardboard are cut before one slides all                                                                                      the way down the ramp.

F: No pieces of cardboard are tested in the entire period.


For five years we have been doing this activity, the results have been amazingly consistent—no clear decline in grades. (Approximately 1/3 A’s, 1/3 B’s, and 1/3 C’s and D’s combined.) According to the data, the majority of students can measure and cut cardboard accurately on their first or second attempt.


How Important are these Skills?:

The Cardboard Ski Jumper data indicates measurement and cutting skills are not the main problem during Mag-Levs. On the other hand, many students test multiple Mag-Levs that do not come close to fitting properly between the aluminum rails (I’ll ignore the magnet choices—these are additional problems!).  Hmmm.

Two questions: Measurement and cutting. Are these important 21st century skills? How much time should we spend helping middle school students develop these skills?  I asked several friends if they regularly use these skills in their occupation. Most told me that accurate cutting wasn’t a commonly used skill, but measurement was. When I pressed for examples of measurement on the job, most gave examples related to hobbies, not occupations. Does this mean careful cutting and accurate measuring are obsolete skills? Is the Mag-Lev an activity worthy of student time and effort? I will sidestep these questions and make a different point. I believe the Mag-Lev activity is less about cutting and measurement and more about something entirely different!



Students must carefully observe what is happening with their Mag-Levs. Is it jammed between the rails? Is it so narrow that it can repel and twist out from between the rails? Are magnets arranged so that one side attracts to the track? Are the cardboard’s magnets right over the track’s magnets? Presented with so many variables, many students become overwhelmed. Their Mag-Lev is not working, but they are unable to identify the problem.  They must reflect on their product, and make adjustments. Once adjustments are made, they must again observe and reflect. Such reflection of work is most definitely a 21st century skill. Students may not design Mag-Levs for a living, but they will work on tasks that require their careful reflection. Did I word this memo clearly? Is this the fairest allocation of resources? Did this advertising campaign produce enough additional sales? What is the best design for the bridge in terms of cost, longevity, and aesthetics?

In order to create a successful Mag-Lev, students must carefully observe what is happening with their product and reflect upon their designs. Why does my Mag-Lev appear to attract to the rails even though the rails are aluminum? Why is it always stopping at that spot? Why does my Mag-Lev repel from one side of the track and attract to the other side, even when I flip the magnets over? Authentic practice with reflection, as well as work with cutting and measurement, makes Mag-Levs an absolutely relevant activity for 21st century learners.


But this is not the final word. What do you think?

Here is a video of the Cardboard Ski Jumper.


What Could Happen? or Safety First

“Did you guys finish electricity?” asked a former student.

“Yes,” I answered. “We just began sound & light.”

“Cool. Did you show them the hot dog cooker? I loved that!”

For years, the hot dog cooker has been one my students’ favorite demonstrations. I complete a circuit with a hot dog. Electrical resistance in the hot dog produces heat—enough to “cook it” in a little over a minute (students then sample cooked slices dipped in ketchup!).


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In addition to illustrating principles of electrical circuits and electrical resistance, I use the hot dog cooker as a teachable moment to discuss safety. This past February, as I expanded my YouTube library, I created a video featuring the hot dog cooker.

Raleigh, a good friend and retired science teacher for whom I have a great deal of respect, questioned my decision to post such a video.

“I know it is out there without our help, but none of us ever wants a phone call from someone asking if we realize that child x hurt themselves because of our efforts. It’s more than the experiment.  The entire setup, under control of anyone other than a person with common sense and knowledge of electrical safety, becomes an invitation for a younger sibling to show off to a friend when responsible people aren’t looking.  The completed apparatus, left on a kid’s desk, is as dangerous as a loaded gun when other children might access it.”

Raleigh, and I (and others) debated this issue for several days. In the end, I opted to leave my video on YouTube.  I edited it to include a plea for students not to even ask a parent for help constructing a cooker unless the parent was an electrician.   I also shared this debate with my students. They seemed to appreciate the tricky nature of balancing the sharing of fascinating and important science with the need to keep folks safe. I felt comfortable with my decision to keep my video public. Then, in late April, Raleigh sent me the following article:

15-Year-Old Ohio Boy Dies While Conducting Science Experiment He Saw on YouTube

Morgan Wojciechwoski was electrocuted while attempting to make a Jacob’s Ladder. Apparently he based his efforts on a YouTube video. It’s not clear which video he watched (there are many); some do and some do not include clear safety cautions. According to reports, Morgan dreamed of becoming a scientist.

At this point, although I certainly feel for Morgan and all who knew him, I maintain my position on my hot dog cooker video. I will not give the excuse that there are already plenty of videos out there already as my defense. I cannot control others’ videos, only my own. Instead, I believe in being open and honest with students, and that knowledge leads to safety. That said, there are a number of fascinating demonstrations I will not share with students, nor put on YouTube. My fear with these demonstrations is that it would be too difficult for students not to hurt themselves if they tried to repeat them. I like to think in terms of “ beyond a reasonable doubt”.  I do not feel, beyond a reasonable doubt, that my students would remain safe if I shared these demonstrations.  So I don’t.

Which science experiments are “safe enough” to share? This is not a simple question; there are few absolutes in life. A student taking a standardized test might press too hard and snap a pencil tip. This shard could fly into a student’s eye. Still, I am unaware of any districts distributing safety goggles for test takers. A student could receive a dangerous burn or electrical shock while using a hot dog cooker (and this is far more likely than “test taker eye”). Here is one final thought on my hot dog cooker video. Would viewers be safer if I removed it from YouTube?  I believe the answer is “no” for two reasons. First, I focus on how it works not on how to build it.  Second, and more importantly, since I provide clear safety warnings within the video, my hope is that these warnings plant a seed of caution in the minds of my viewers if they explore other videos involving household electricity.

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This, however, is not the last word. What are your thoughts?