Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dangerous Exploration and Science

After hearing a segment about the Tinkering School on All Things Considered, I've been doing a bit more reading on it. The Tinkering School is a summer camp for kids that allows kids to build, use fire, throw spears and learn by doing.

The Tinkering School offers an exploratory curriculum designed to help kids - ages 7 to 17 - learn how to build things. By providing a collaborative environment in which to explore basic and advanced building techniques and principles, we strive to create a school where we all learn by fooling around. All activities are hands-on, supervised, and at least partly improvisational.

Grand schemes, wild ideas, crazy notions, and intuitive leaps of imagination are, of course, encouraged and fertilized.

Much of what they do looks "dangerous", at least at first glance, but it looks like a lot of fun - check out the photos and videos of the kids building a bridge.

The founder of The Tinkering School, software engineer Gever Tully, gave a talk at TED about "5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do". His philosophy is that overbearing safety regulations actually stifle creativity and has the unintended effect of raising children who never learn to safely interact with the environment around them. What struck me is how many of his suggested "5 Dangerous Things" - playing with fire, owning (and learning to use) a pocket knife, throwing a spear, deconstructing appliances - are what I think of as traditionally boys' activities. While parents may be overprotective of their children in general, it seems that boys are given more freedom to pursue those potentially dangerous kinds of exploratory activities. There's a reason why the female counterpart to The Dangerous Book for Boys is the The Daring Book for Girls (which includes activities like learning how to put your hair up with a pencil and slumber party games).

I don't think it's unrealistic to suggest that kids who are encouraged to disassemble appliances or build their own treehouse for fun are more likely to discover they are interested in engineering than kids who do not. And I think encouraging kids to explore and experiment can spark a love for science. The fact that boys are more likely to allowed and encouraged in such "dangerous" pursuits is likely one of the factors that creates the disparity in the number of boys and girls who chose to pursue science and engineering as a career. And that's what the "girls don't choose science" apologists for the gender gap are missing: career choice does not develop in a vacuum.

Anyway, I vote for more programs like the Tinkering School that promote exploration and creativity in both girls and boys.

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