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Tiny House Building Workshop (June 2015)

on Mon, 03/23/2015 - 09:53

Regional tiny house expert, Ian Anderson, and master carpenter, Dermott Morley, partner with Think Tank to help a local sixteen year old, Hannah Wnuk build her own tiny house. The three parties join together not just to build Hannah's house but to create a hands-on academic opportunity open to others as well. In June, the creation of Hannah's house will be a part of a two week, hands-on workshop open to six participants who will learn the art and science of tiny house living and building. Topics will include choosing a trailer, tiny house design, framing, sheathing, windows and doors and environmentally friendly internal systems. The group will start with Hannah’s empty trailer and at the end of week two, sixteen year old Hannah will have a tiny house on that trailer. Attendees can sign up for a single week or both weeks.

The term “Tiny House” generally refers to a house that is 400 square feet or less. They are often built on trailers, and can be moved. They are inexpensive to live in, and generally have a low environmental impact. The Tiny House trend has been making a push to get more people into smaller, more environmentally friendly homes, and to simplify their lives. Lauren Monroe, founder of Worcester Think Tank also has a passion for tiny houses, and she lives in one. Think Tank has run a tiny house building workshop in the past and demand has grown for more of them. When Hannah came along with her desire to build this summer, it seemed like the right time for the next workshop. The upcoming tiny house workshop is open to anyone sixteen years and older and everyone will be involved in the entire building. Register for this workshop HERE. Fore more details and to make a deposit, click HERE.

(above) Workshop participants will build this house on a trailer from the Tumblweed Tiny House Company, Cypress 20, plan.

Hands On System Dynamics

on Thu, 03/12/2015 - 18:02

By James MacCormick

Space, the final frontier, is more and more filling up with its complementary pioneers.  From the moon landings to Voyager, to Mars One and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the field of space travel has never been more active or looked more hopeful.  This hushed, anticipatory period, when great forces are mobilizing but have not yet acted, is an excellent time to think creatively about what that rush of future action will actually entail and require.  The goal of ‘Engineering Mission to Mars’ is to do just that; to explore, within the framework of physics, engineering, biology, and any other necessary fields, the problems that the pioneers of space will actually meet with when they set off into the void.  It is clear, of course, that the ability of anyone other than a specialist to actually plan a Mars mission and engage fully with all the massively complex knowledge that this requires is nonexistent; however, this should not be discouraging, as it is the nature of science that astounding complexity is built up from beautifully elegant and simple basics.  Anyone can learn these, and from even such a small lens the whole dazzling vista of the most obscure scientific endeavor can be enjoyed, even if it is not entirely in focus. 

This basis of a Mars mission informs the structure of the curriculum.  Along the way, students will learn details and fundamentals of a wide variety of scientific fields.  The classroom environment is intimate and highly discussion based; it is often difficult to distinguish the instructor(s) from the students, as they simply blend together in conversation.  Adding to this free-flowing image is the content of the curriculum, which is mostly composed of applied, hands-on experiments and illustrative activities.  As the teacher moves about the room from a supply station to a concept drawn on a board to a table on which is displayed a long-term experiment, students move as well, working on physical projects, observing, and participating in the discussion which never really ceases even after its allotted time.

The lessons and projects range in type and direction from the actual construction of a model to the perusal and discussion of a video.  For example, students built models illustrating the principles of heating systems and exploring the most effective way to store heat.  To simulate the task of actually designing and building a heating system that would be sent into space, students were given a budget and a list of prices for a wide variety of materials.  After watching a few videos, running various experiments, and discussing some rules of heat, they built their models and tested them to find out the most effective method.  Other planned modeling activities include the construction of a mars rover, which student Joe says is the project he is most excited about.

In developing the curriculum for this class, Think Tank partnered with Creative Learning Exchange, a non-profit organization with the goal of encouraging “systems-thinking” in education.  I had the opportunity to speak with Lees Stunz, a co-founder of CLE who has several times joined us in teaching this class.  Essentially, she views knowledge as an iceberg, with the surface, protruding layer being Events, the lower but still shallow layer being Patterns, and the deepest, most important layer being Systems.  She believes that the condition of our society and world would be immeasurably improved if everyone took the time to learn and apply the simple methodology which arises from this understanding.  I encourage you to check out the CLE’s website and explore some of its ideas. (They develop curricula, which could provide some inspiration to those of you who homeschool).  

I was so impressed by the quality of student input in the discussions that I feel compelled to note my personal astonishment in this piece.  Their ability to swiftly intuit the nature of the scientific concepts introduced to them and as quickly describe how that knowledge could be practically applied was simply incredible; I would never have believed that students of such a young age were capable of it.  It seems that if you give a child the opportunity to interact with ideas on their own terms rather than feeding them both facts and conclusions, the limit of their ability will be no less than the depth of their curiosity, which is bottomless.

Photos: (top) Martian landscape. (right) Students test heat retention between their solar ovens.

James MacCormick has interned with Think Tank during the Fall 2014 and Spring 2015 semesters via the Dynamy program.

Why Drop When You Can Launch?

on Mon, 03/09/2015 - 20:48

The EcoTarium's Mary McIntosh introduces students to a small, homemade catapult which they use to launch eggs at the wall in Art and Engineering Design class. The students were given specific materials and asked to protect their egg as though it were a helmeted head (the egg needed to be able to "see" through its helmet) before launch. As you can see, they had a great time.

Laboratory Science, In Color

on Wed, 01/07/2015 - 16:57

The goal of lab science is often to “take the abstract and make it concrete”. Michael Pellegrini's words ring quite true in the multi-faceted lab work students conduct in his Think Tank biology class. Michael, who is a life-long biology enthusiast, has managed to translate what is clearly a profound passion into a bright and colorful curriculum. During the Fall 2014 semester, Michael guided students through multiple hands-on labs (which included a field trip to Anna Maria College in Paxton) and even viewed the science fiction film Gattaca and discussed how genetics influenced its story and art.

The final lab of this past semester had students exploring plasmids and their unique relationship with our genetic world. Plasmids are DNA molecules that are physically independent from chromosomal DNA molecules. They can also be responsible for specific traits which make organisms survive or adapt in an exclusive environment. To illustrate how this is used in modern biology, Michael introduced the students to pGLO. pGLO is an engineered plasmid that contains a gene called GFP, which enables an organism to produce a green fluorescent protein. It also contains a gene that enables an organism to inactivate ampicillin (a commonly used  antibiotic for treating bacterial infections). The GFP gene was originally isolated from a species of bioluminescent jellyfish known as Aequoria victoria. When exposed to ultraviolet light, GFP will glow a bright green.

The goal of the lab is to demonstrate how pGLO acts as an important indicator in bacterial specimens. Students began by culturing the E. coli bacteria in a Luria agar (a nutritionally rich substance for bacteria growth). The specimens were introduced to a heat shock treatment which prepares the bacteria to more easily absorb other ingredients, in this case ampicillin, pGLO, and arabinose (a simple sugar that activates the GFP in pGLO). Out of four E. coli specimens, three received ampicillin, two of which received pGLO(one with arabinose and one without). Under ultraviolet light, we see that the arabinose has, in fact, activated the GFP, confirming that the pGLO plasmids have successfully merged with the E. coli bacteria. With this experiment, scientists can effectively track the movement and growth of plasmids that include GFPs. When the GFP protein is paired with other less visible but desirable traits in a plasmid, they can be certain the plasmid has been taken up by the organism if it glows! 

As Michael walked me through the the lab, I appreciated how each step engaged the senses in a different way. I observed the students carefully measuring their ingredients, submerging samples between specific hot and cold temperatures, relocating to the unofficial dark room to shed some ultraviolet light on the subject, and finally sitting around and talking about what they had experienced. The multi-class lab was sprinkled with Michael’s passionate lectures, but this was never without student inclusion. He frequently made a point to stop and visit each student with a new question, or ask someone to revisit a previously discussed concept.

Photos: (top) Michael explains the experiment for guests during an extended lab session open to Think Tank families. (middle) pGLO treated bacteria shines under ultraviolet light. (bottom) Students prepare their specimens for the final step.

Reading & Revolution

on Wed, 11/12/2014 - 17:03

The core which connects everything discussed in Explorative Lit: Allegory and Satire (running this fall) is Orwell’s famous masterpiece, Animal Farm.  While conversing about the class, Adam Zelny explained that he chose the book both for its multifaceted nature and it’s evocative power within the context of our modern culture.  He hopes that students will take in Orwell’s messages about culture and government- still entirely relevant almost 70 years later- and perhaps find motivation to change the conditions that led Orwell to write his works, or at least consider their place within them.  Animal Farm’s extensive use of satire is ideal for this purpose, as few tools are better suited to spark introspection.

A critical piece of the class is its analysis of the Russian Revolution, which runs parallel to the plot of Animal Farm.  Students learn the key events and figures of the revolution, as well as its repercussions up to World War II.  This allows them to better appreciate the allegorical tools that Animal Farm employs; most of its characters directly symbolize some aspect of revolutionary Russia, whether it be propaganda, Stalin, or the working class.

This historical study is balanced with creative writing assignments which function as channels of expression; for example, the class was told to write a short story depicting a communist society.  This kind of extensive and very personal exploration allows students to achieve a more advanced understanding of their own ideas, and develop them further than they might be able to in a traditional classroom setting.  Instilling a passion for writing is the last and most important goal of the course; in Adam’s own words, to allow students to learn and experience courage and motivation to write.

Taken from the 1954 animated film adaptation (above), the animals read the commandments written on the barn.

Between Matte and Glossy

on Thu, 10/23/2014 - 16:42

Think Tank programs tend to nurture the reward of hands-on experience, where students leave with distinct memories or physical representations of a given class. Students construct digital and physical models in 3D Design. They explore challenging experiments in Contextual Chemistry and leave with vivid memories. Video Production workshops culminate in final movies indefinitely preserved online. And, in the case of Applied Digital Photography, artistic visions are preserved both in print and digitally. 

Photography perseveres as one of our most important forms of visual art and communication. As a hundred thousand stills compose an elaborate feature film, just one photograph may convey a profound concept, or perhaps a simple sentiment. For the final project in last semester's Digital Photography workshop, Tyler Trahan challenged his students to tackle the latter; how can you tell a story through a photo, and what will that story say? During class sessions students studied some technical elements of photography, such as exposure, aperture, depth of field, etc., and most importantly composition.

While discussing the workshop, Tyler explained that a still image contains more than what the eye instantly perceives.  Beyond our immediate recognition of things, there are patterns that might instill a certain emotion. Curving lines are calming, Tyler explained, whereas perpendicularity signifies stability, and angles generate excitement. He encouraged the students to be aware of these patterns as they considered what they're final project would be about. Throughout the workshop they explored several theme-based assignments with an experimental approach. For example, when asked to capture motion in a photo, student Joshua Dick tied glow sticks to his sneakers and ran on a treadmill in the dark.

And so the students began to take pictures. Some were taken at home, some in and around Think Tank, and some were captured during a field trip to Rutland State Park where a decrepit prison camp remains from the early 1900s. In Sam Dodson's photo titled Ashes (above), from a series that depicts pivotal moments in board games, he chose a diptych (two panelled) protrayal of a Jenga tower, first crumbled and then tall and complete. Tyler and I talked of the potential symbolism behind Sam's piece and how its title may signify a rebirth (if perceived from left ot right). Lydia Hart, a student not only fond of horseback riding but also quite passionate about the animals, chose to intimately document a horse and its environment at a farm. Trust (right) is one of six images in a series. Again, Tyler pointed out the significance of meaning here. Lydia's connection to the subject matter is clearly conveyed. You can view more photos from Applied Digital Photography and more HERE.

Tyler Trahan is a professional photographer and former Worcester Think Tank student. Visit to view Tylers work and for booking.

Creatively Recording Science

on Thu, 09/25/2014 - 15:42

When Lauren Monroe and I considered what we wanted to achieve with the Macro to Micro: Multimedia Science class, we revisited the notion of teaching to teach. That is, encouraging those who have acquired knowledge to relay it back to the world in a new and creative way. Our goal, with this class, is to introduce students to a diverse variety of science-based experiments and document our findings via a multimedia approach. As we conduct and record experiments both familiar and new, we ask: How can we teach this concept differently?

In our first two classes we explored how the liquid chemical compounds hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and bleach (NaClO) can be mixed together to produce a gas. When combined, each compound releases an oxygen molecule, leaving NaCl (salt) and H2O (water) as the remaining liquid. The reaction occurs so quickly that the oxygen (O2) rushes out as a newly formed gas and mingles with the air. What can you do with such a reaction? Watch the video below and find out!

View more videos from the Macro to Micro class HERE!