Brilliant: The Science of Smart

In Praise of Tinkering

How the decline in technical know-how is making us think less

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Last month I watched as my almost-six-year old son paged through a new book I’d given him, inspecting its black-and-white line drawings, its quaint chapter headings — “Useful Tools for Home Mechanics,” “The Versatile Querl and Other Utensils” — and its matter-of-fact instructions for making furniture, gadgets, and toys with one’s own hands. “What is this?” he asked. It was The Boy Mechanic, first published in 1913. Its retro appeal seemed lost on Teddy, who soon tossed it aside to play a few rounds of Angry Birds on my iPhone.

That shiny slab of glass and metal is far more likely to be a child’s plaything these days than a pocketknife or a handful of nails — a shift that Frank Keil, a Yale University psychologist who brought the book to my attention, finds troubling. “My friends and I grew up playing around in the garage, fixing our cars,” says Keil, who is 59. “Today kids are sealed in a silicon bubble. They don’t know how anything works.”

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Many others have noticed this phenomenon. Engineering professors report that students now enter college without the kind of hands-on expertise they once unfailingly possessed. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “we scour the country looking for young builders and inventors,” says Kim Vandiver, dean for undergraduate research. “They’re getting harder and harder to find.” MIT now offers classes and extracurricular activities devoted to taking things apart and putting them together, an effort to teach students the skills their fathers and grandfathers learned curbside on weekend afternoons.

Why should this matter? Some would argue that the digital age has rendered such technical know-how as obsolete as the sketches in The Boy Mechanic. Our omnipresent devices work the way we want them to (well, most of the time), with no skill required beyond pushing a button. What’s to be gained by knowing how they work?

Actually, a lot. Research in the science of learning shows that hands-on building projects help young people conceptualize ideas and understand issues in greater depth. In an experiment described in the International Journal of Engineering Education in 2009, for example, one group of eighth-graders was taught about water resources in the traditional way: classroom lectures, handouts and worksheets. Meanwhile, a group of their classmates explored the same subject by designing and constructing a water purification device. The students in the second group learned the material better: they knew more about the importance of clean drinking water and how it is produced, and they engaged in deeper and more complex thinking in response to open-ended questions on water resources and water quality.

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If we want more young people to choose a profession in one of the group of crucial fields known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — we ought to start cultivating these interests and skills early. But the way to do so may not be the kind of highly structured and directed instruction that we usually associate with these subjects. Instead, some educators have begun taking seriously an activity often dismissed as a waste of time: tinkering. Tinkering is the polar opposite of the test-driven, results-oriented approach of No Child Left Behind: it involves a loose process of trying things out, seeing what happens, reflecting and evaluating, and trying again. As Sylvia Martinez, a learning expert who spoke about the value of tinkering at a meeting of the National Council of Women in Information Technology earlier this year, puts it: “Tinkering is the way that real science happens, in all its messy glory.”

This month we’ve been hearing a lot about how the late Steve Jobs grew up tinkering with radios and other appliances in his parents’ garage. Would the founder of Apple have been able to re-imagine his company’s products so completely without an intimate understanding of how machines work, learned from the inside out? Of course, that’s not why the young Jobs spent so many hours at his father’s workbench. He did it because it was fun. It’s satisfying to understand how everyday objects are put together, to see past their surfaces to the workings within. One evening a week after The Boy Mechanic was so unceremoniously tossed aside, I went to check on Teddy in his bedroom. I found him under the covers, perusing the book with a flashlight, as thousands of kids before him have surely done. I’ve already cleared some space in the garage.