Science Museum of Minnesota presents on engineering for kids at Milaca library

Milaca – Kids in Milaca learned what birds’ beaks and Japanese bullet trains have in common during a presentation about engineering from the Science Museum of Minnesota at the Milaca Community Library on Tuesday, June 20.

Photo by Austin Gerth, Union-Times
Instructor Jan Elftmann of the Science Museum of Minnesota has a volunteer test a kevlar-lined glove against a heat lamp to demonstrate how everyday objects and tools have been engineered for specific purposes.

Instructor Jan Elftmann from the Science Museum of Minnesota taught the kids in attendance about the basic thought process used by engineers to solve problems and took them through a number of hands-on demonstrations of basic engineering problems.

In one demonstration, Elftmann had volunteers drop wooden model trains into a tube full of water to see how much water was displaced by the impact. She explained this was the same method Japanese engineers used to figure out how to prevent trains from making booming shock waves as they passed through tunnels.

So what do beaks have in common with bullet trains? The engineer Eiji Nakatsu eventually figured out that one viable way to make trains quieter was to build them with elongated, beak-like fronts that would slide through the air smoothly. Nakatsu came up with his idea while birdwatching.

Elftmann taught her young audience a cyclical, multi-step design process to explain how engineers seek and solve problems: ask, imagine, plan, create and improve. Once the final step is reached, Elftmann explained, the process starts over.

“Engineers love to improve,” Elftmann said, “and to improve it, they have to start all over again.”

One of Elftmann’s other demonstrations encouraged the children to use the engineering process themselves, working together to come up with and refine their own ideas and eventually solve a problem.

“Engineers always talk to other engineers and share their ideas,” she said. “Each person should share their idea.”

The scenario she took the children through required them to figure out how to transport a “hot ball of chemicals” (represented by a big red inflatable ball) from one spot to another without touching it, dropping it, or stepping into a designated radius around the two points the ball was supposed to occupy. The children were only allowed to use lengths of rope, PVC pipe, clothespins and their own minds to solve the problem.

Two ideas were attempted by small groups of kid volunteers; neither one worked completely, but Elftmann stressed that in a real engineering situation, each idea would be refined, possibly multiple times.

“It’s not about winning,” Elftmann said. “It’s about finding and solving the problem, finding the right solution.”

Elftmann’s final demonstration illustrated the importance of engineers to human progress. She had a group of volunteers set up a pretend game night at a table with a game, plates, drinks, snacks and a little disco ball, and asked the other children in the audience to start naming off items in the scene that would have been designed by engineers. By the time they were finished, all of the items were taken away because they would all have been products of engineering.