Chain Reactions: Prompting the Unexpected


We have been exploring chain reactions at the Museum for years.  Building tracks and paths for balls to roll on is a fun activity that teaches persistence, prototyping and teamwork.  Recently I taught two separate classes centered around chain reactions.  One was with a group of second graders from the Ellis School.  Their science teacher wanted to expand upon her students’ learning with a trip to MAKESHOP.


The other class was with a group of kids at the Carnegie Library of Homestead’s new maker space.  Typically we just explore with ramps and balls using cardboard tubes, tape, scissors, pegboard, etc.  We build and explore with no explicit goal or prompt.  However, it is good to have some kind of prompt when dealing specifically with chain reactions.  Lately I have been adding our circuit blocks in with our chain reaction workshops as an added challenge.  The prompt is “to turn on a motor without touching it.”  Basically, make something that can turn the motor on.  Sometimes I model what I mean by this depending on the age of the students.

The kids (or adults) are given ample time (usually an hour) to brainstorm, build, prototype and present.  The results are always interesting.  I have had people cover the wooden balls in aluminum foil to make them conductive.  I’ve had people use the spinning motor to start another step in their chain reaction.  You can start with a simple prompt and then have that start something bigger.  Or start with a simple challenge and then let the students add to that challenge (can you make something go faster, slower, have more steps, etc.?).


It is always fun to be able to change and adapt existing workshops to meet the needs of certain students.  I still have fun building simple ramps for balls to roll on.  But when you start to add motors and batteries and different materials then you can really start to see the possibilities within a workshop.



Kevin is a teacher by trade. He loves dinosaurs, sloths and magnets.

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