Morgan dissembling the Apple G4

My grandmother once brought an abandoned robin’s nest into her public-school elementary class and had her students slowly take it apart. Then she asked them to try to put it back together again, as best they could.

If she had wanted to, she could have started her class with a lecture, and told her students about how a bird takes mud, grass and leaves, and weaves them into a perfect receptacle for eggs and chicks. Nowadays, a teacher could even show her students a mini-documentary or a portion of a nature show on YouTube. Instead, my grandmother went straight to setting them to tear apart that nest, until it was nothing but a pile of crumbly earth and dirty plan matter, before revealing her big ask: “Try to put it together, please.”

Asking children to do the impossible is not normally a wise idea, but my grandmother’s point, as she told me, was to impress upon her students the full wonder of how a bird is able to craft such an intricately constructed object, without the use of hands or fingers. What the bird relies on instead, is a tapered bill and a mysteriously encoded set of instructions lodged in its brain.

What my grandmother hoped to “lodge” in her students’ brains, was that sense of wonder that comes from contemplating the marvels of the universe. How are instructions encoded in a bird’s brain? How different are robin instructions from the instructions found in the brain of an eagle? If you gave a robin nothing but mud and cotton balls, would it improvise a new type of nest?

Questions lead to more questions, which is how brains become activated. The activated brain is the one most likely to learn, both from any observations along the way and from formal instruction that might follow. This is the basis of what is known in the educational field as “Inquiry Based Learning.”

While not all of George Lucas’ movies are masterpieces, the George Lucas Educational Foundation has made a fantastic (dare I say stellar?) website for parents and educators, which promotes this promotion of wonder. The starting place is the wonder that children already come equipped with. For a fuller explanation of what this looks like in practice in a public school setting, see edutopia.org/practice/i-wonder-questions-harnessing-power-inquiry

We didn’t have enough camps lined for our boy this summer, partially because we couldn’t afford them. (Of course, as any working parent knows, sometimes if you don’t pay for camp, you can’t work, so it can be a bit of a catch-22.) At any rate, we still had a pretty excellent summer, and part of that was due to some “inquiry-based instruction” of our own devising.

In our basement, we had an old Apple G-4 which was headed to the recycling center. My boy, who like many children his age is interested in how everything works, leapt at the chance to take the dead computer apart and to see what was inside.

You could call this, I suppose, an electronics version of my grandmother’s bird nest lesson. Obviously, we could have started with a diagram or a schematic of exactly what we would find inside. And, why not? Because that would be boring, at least for most students, that’s why not! And that, of course, is the point.

So, instead of downloading schematics and diagrams, we grabbed a handful of different screwdrivers, wire cutters and pliers, took the G4 out to the picnic table, spread out a tarp to protect the eating surface from stray bits of computer innards, and tore into it. (Obviously, the thing was unplugged and not turned on, when we started our dissection.)

My boy and his mother (who are in Maine as I write this, enjoying that part of the world where there is only rocks, trees, sand and ocean) both love jigsaw puzzles. I don’t. I find wrangling words into sentences highly pleasurable, and I enjoy solving algebraic equations, but rotating two- and three-dimensional objects in my mind’s eye is not something I am good at. I get bored fast.

Not Morgen. For this project, my boy’s initial challenge and happy pursuit was how to get to all the inner parts. Apple made it relatively easy with the G4, which opens up like a suitcase. But to really see all the working parts and get your hands on them you have to remove components that are in the way.

He was quickly exclaiming things like, “I get it! They attached these things here, and wired that thing to itself, so we have to remove this shield and then approach it from the back.” That is a terrible paraphrase, but the point is, he took great pleasure in figuring out this particular jigsaw puzzle. I mostly stood out of the way.

We started catching glimpses of copper. As he removed more and more components, we finally could see that there were these “copper wire donuts.” Both us knew right away we had to extricate them and identify them.

Finally, it was time to utilize schematics and webpages dedicated to electrical engineering. By simply Googling, “copper wire donut, components of computer” we were quickly able to learn that these magical-looking objects were a special kind of “transformer” which can release a different amount of electricity than is originally provided to it.

Transformers are sometimes referred to as “machines without moving parts” and can create electromagnetic fields. If these fields are positioned near a second specially arranged stretch of copper wire, the original transformer can actually “induce” a current in the second object, even though it is not directly linked to it by a wire. When a transformer is used this way, it is called an “inducer.”

My next hope is to get my boy a kit, so that he can design and build a computer. One such kit is called the Raspberry Pi. Google it. They are relatively affordable, especially compared to purchasing a pre-made computer.

They are also programmable. There are instructions and and cool examples of what students have done with their Raspberry Pis, all available on YouTube. You may be amazed by what kids can do with some encouragement and the right tools.  

Before I take that step of getting my boy a kit for a computer, I am first going to continue to extract all the parts of our dead G4, and with my boy, learn the names of all of them. Why? Because knowing the language related to a field of study is enormously helpful to people about to embark on a new learning adventure.

But should I simply give him a list of the names of things and ask him to memorize them? By now, you probably know that is not what I, or most other modern educators, would ever suggest.

Instead, my plan is to set up a poker game. Morgen has recently learned poker and is quite good at it. But when he comes back from Maine, we should start using some new poker chips, and not because he has been cleaning me out of my loose change.

I figure a RAM memory card is probably worth 10 copper donut transformer/inducers, and a copper donut transformer/inducer is worth 10 capacitors, and so on – but he and I can work out those details together. It’s better that way.

I am glad he has been in Maine, free for a week from computers and technology, but sure am glad he is coming home, and I can’t wait to play poker with him. It’s a game I can’t lose, even if he wins all my inducers, every last capacitor and all my memory cards.