Newton’s Attic teaches kids engineering through fun and games

April 5, 2015

150401NewtonsAttic0023Kate Golden, 10, rode The Device, which sling-shots riders down a 125-foot-long track at Newton’s Attic.  The non-profit company uses hands-on fun and games to teach kids engineering, technology and physics. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

When Bill Cloyd was growing up on a Lexington farm in the early 1980s, he enjoyed building go karts and mini bikes from spare parts and testing the laws of physics.

He erected an 80-foot-tall tripod from old TV antenna towers and practiced free-falling into a circus net. He made a human catapult to launch friends into a pond. And he created a centrifugal “vomit express” ride that quickly taught him the importance of putting an “off” switch within easy reach.

Making those toys inspired Cloyd to become a mechanical engineer.

“But I realized I was learning as much about engineering by building stuff as I was in the classroom,” he said. “And building stuff was a lot more fun.”

150401NewtonsAttic0230After teaching high school physics for two years, Cloyd started the non-profit company Newton’s Attic in 1998. He began by making resource materials for teachers, but soon developed facilities and programs where kids could learn engineering, physics and technology by creating their own toys.

Cloyd and his wife, Dawn, a businesswoman and former language teacher, have operated Newton’s Attic since 2012 from a five-acre former tractor dealership off Versailles Road just past Blue Grass Airport. They offer summer, spring break and after-school classes for kids ages 6 to 18.

Last week, when Fayette County Public Schools were on spring break, Newton’s Attic was a beehive of adolescent creative energy:

Kids and their instructors were hurling pumpkins with a giant ballista catapult. They were building and flying drones. They were using wood, metal, PVC pipe and power tools to create robots. And they were learning about gravitational force by riding the Sling Shot, a 125-foot, bungee-powered roller coaster.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Kate Golden, 10, as she built a robotic arm she designed to pick up tennis balls. “Nobody tells you exactly what you have to make. You can invent it yourself.”

This summer, Newton’s Attic plans 28 classes in such things as robotics, computer programming and building your own 3-D printer. There also is Camp Catapult and Camp Chemistry. During the past three years, summer camp enrollment has grown from 183 students to 730, and Dawn Cloyd expects more this year.

150401NewtonsAttic0091“The whole idea is fun with physics,” she said. “Play is the ultimate learning tool.”

Newton’s Attic has worked on programs with many Central Kentucky school districts, UK, Berea College and the Christian Appalachian Project. Cloyd said they hope to offer professional development training for science teachers in the future.

The facility also hosts school field trips, scouting events and birthday parties. Private tutoring is available, as is a “mobile engineering center” that can take programs to other locations. More information: Newtonsattic.com.

The business is supported by student tuition, donations and grants from companies such as Messer Construction, which recently gave several thousand dollars to improve the shop facilities.

“We have kids as young as 6 using power tools,” Dawn Cloyd said. “It’s amazing how responsible kids become when they get to do it.”

Everyone wears safety glasses when using power tools, and there is plenty of supervision and help from instructors, both adults and older teens. Some instructors started coming to Newton’s Attic as kids and are now studying engineering and related subjects at the University of Kentucky.

Blaise Davis, 13, has been coming to Newton’s Attic for several years from Cincinnati and staying with his grandparents. He has built a go kart and last week was making a PVC cannon to mount on it to shoot tennis balls in competitive engineering games.

Rikki Gard’s son Dexter, 10, started attending Newton’s Attic classes four years ago. She said he has learned to build and fly drones, studied several computer programming languages and is already considering a career in computer science.

Her daughter, Maura, 6, began classes last summer.

“I don’t know what we would have done if Newton’s Attic didn’t exist,” Gard said. “You can’t find electives like that anywhere else. I guess he would have had to get books and study on his own.”

The family recently moved to Cleveland, where both kids will be going to Menlo Park Academy, a public school for gifted kids. “I’m sure Newton’s Attic will be the thing they miss most about Lexington,” she said.

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Thomas Hunt Morgan: history to empower, not limit, Lexington

January 3, 2015

While most of us are making plans for this year, some people in Lexington have their eyes on 2016. They are planning a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Hunt Morgan, the most famous Lexingtonian most people here have never heard of.

The goal is not so much to celebrate someone who lived from 1866 to 1945, but to use his legacy to help reshape Lexington’s image and future. If this local boy could grow up to become one of the 20th century’s most influential scientists, what might other Lexington children be inspired to accomplish?

If Thomas Hunt Morgan’s name sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because you have heard of his uncle, Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a dashing Confederate cavalry raider. His statue is outside the old Fayette County Courthouse.

Thomas Hunt Morgan was born in the home of his great-grandfather, John Wesley Hunt, one of Kentucky’s first millionaires. In 1955, the house was saved from demolition and inspired creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which now operates it as a museum.

THMMorgan grew up in a circa 1869 house behind it. The Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky recently deeded that house to the Blue Grass Trust, which has begun renovation.

Morgan spent his childhood collecting fossils, birds’ eggs and other natural specimens that filled his parents’ attic, inspiring him to a career in science.

After earning a degree from the University of Kentucky, he got his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University. As a professor at Bryn Mawr College, he did pioneering research in embryology there and at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass. He moved on to Columbia University in 1904 and the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

Morgan’s experiments with fruit flies explained how the theories of genetics and evolution worked. He became the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize in 1933 and wrote seven books that are now scientific classics.

But Morgan’s significance was not just in the results of his research, but in the ways it was conducted. His emphasis on collaborative, skeptical experiments over theory created the foundation for modern biological research.

The attic of Morgan’s childhood home was the first of several laboratories he would use to change the course of science. “He always said this was a key part of his success,” Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist, said.

UK’s biological sciences building is named for Morgan, and the biology department hosts a prestigious annual lecture that bears his name. But Morgan is much more famous everywhere else than in Lexington, which has always been more fixated on his Civil War uncle.

Kimmerer thought it was time to change that. After writing a piece about Morgan for the website PlanetExperts.com, he launched an effort to make 2016 the “year of Thomas Hunt Morgan” in Lexington.

The Blue Grass Trust hosted a lunch at the Thomas Hunt Morgan House on Dec. 5 for more than 40 representatives of local government, education and business communities. Kimmerer outlined his vision for a year of events that could have a lasting impact on Lexington’s potential to become more of a center of scientific education, research and commercialization.

Kimmerer said the response has been good — especially outside Kentucky.

“We’ve gotten a very warm reception from all of the institutions where Morgan studied and worked,” he said, noting that they have offered to send speakers and lend artifacts and materials.

After the lunch, attendees formed committees to help interested groups organize events and raise some money for facilitation once a non-profit has been identified as a financial steward.

“We would like for interested companies or schools to step up and create events they think would have value,” Kimmerer said.

Among the ideas: science fairs, lectures, and an educational event called a bioblitz, where teams of volunteers work together to identify as many species of plants, animals and organisms in a defined area as possible within 24 hours.

Kimmerer is trying to organize a screening of the new movie, The Fly Room, which is set in Morgan’s Columbia University laboratory, and perhaps an exhibit of the scientifically accurate movie set.

Even more important is creating a long-term legacy, such as public art and exhibits; economic-development initiatives focused on science; scholarships or fellowships at the prestigious institutions where Morgan studied and worked; and naming a local public school for Morgan.

But the most important legacy Lexington could create for Morgan is the attitude that this city should be empowered by its history, rather than be limited by it.

“We look at this as an opportunity for Lexington to change its self-image,” Kimmerer said. “And the more we can get kids involved, the better.”


Here’s the local hero a forward-looking Lexington should celebrate

October 18, 2014

What holds Lexington back? Well, for one thing, we celebrate the wrong member of the Hunt-Morgan family.

That may sound trivial, but it’s not.

In my work, I talk with some of Lexington’s most innovative people. They are behind many of the exciting things now happening in this city. Privately, though, many say they feel as if they are swimming against the tide. Lexington resists change, is too comfortable with the status quo.

Lexington loves to celebrate its history, and rightfully so. But the value of studying history is not to dwell on the past; it is to better understand the present and find inspiration for the future.

As a boy growing up here in the 1960s, I considered Gen. John Hunt Morgan a local hero. The Confederate cavalry raider was the star of the Hunt-Morgan House museum, his mother’s home on Gratz Park. His statue was on the courthouse lawn.

But the more I learn about Morgan, the less I respect him. He stole horses and burned towns, all to further a cause that wanted to break up the nation and keep black people in slavery. To my adult mind, that’s not hero material.

Morgan was a colorful, controversial character, and if Civil War buffs want to celebrate him, that’s fine. I would never want to see his statue removed from what is now the old courthouse lawn, because he is a significant figure in our history.

THMBut it is a shame he is more famous and celebrated here than his nephew, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a pioneering scientist and the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize.

Thomas Hunt Morgan came along two years after his uncle’s death in a Civil War ambush. He was born in the Hunt-Morgan House on Sept. 25, 1866 and grew up behind it, in another family home facing Broadway.

That house was in the news last week. The Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky has deeded it to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which plans to restore it for programming and events.

I was vaguely aware of Morgan’s accomplishments, but I didn’t fully understand his significance until I read an essay Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist, wrote recently for the website Planetexperts.com.

“Thomas Hunt Morgan was to become the most important biologist of his time, and laid the foundations for all of modern biology,” he wrote.

After a childhood of collecting birds’ eggs and fossils, Morgan earned degrees from the University of Kentucky and Johns Hopkins University. He spent 24 years doing pioneering embryology research at Bryn Mawr College. He joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1904 and the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

Morgan exhibited the best traits of scientific skepticism. He didn’t just theorize, he experimented. His work challenged, and eventually affirmed, two major concepts of biological science: Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s ideas about genetics.

At Columbia, Morgan used fruit flies in sophisticated experiments to explain how genetics and evolution work. He showed that chromosomes carry genes and are the mechanical basis of heredity.

“He did not believe any biological theory unless he could test it,” Kimmerer wrote. “Almost every biological scientist working today is the beneficiary of Thomas Hunt Morgan’s approach to research.”

Morgan won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 and wrote seven books, all now classics of science. He died in 1945.

Kimmerer and I were talking recently about how Morgan may be one of the most accomplished Kentuckians in history. UK’s biological sciences building is named for him, and there is a state historical marker outside his boyhood home.

But I’ll bet if you asked most people in Lexington who Thomas Hunt Morgan was, they wouldn’t know.

Kimmerer has a great idea: Lexington should start planning now to celebrate 2016 as the year of Thomas Hunt Morgan, because it will be the 150th anniversary of his birth. This celebration could showcase Lexington as a city of modern scientific education, research and commercialization.

There could be Thomas Hunt Morgan banners on Main Street, exhibits and school science fairs. There could be a lecture series about his work, as well as the scientific research now being done in Lexington or by Kentuckians elsewhere.

Perhaps the Kentucky Theatre could show The Fly Room, a new scientifically accurate movie set in Morgan’s Columbia University lab, and invite filmmaker Alexis Gambis to come and speak. The film’s set, a recreation of that lab, was on display in New York this summer. Could it be brought here?

Could this attention help the Blue Grass Trust raise money to restore Morgan’s house? Could the Fayette County Public Schools’ STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) Academy be named for him?

A statue of Thomas Hunt Morgan on the new Courthouse Plaza would certainly be appropriate. He should be a local hero, an example to future generations that a kid born in Lexington can grow up to change the world.


Chemist, writer, father of ‘the Pill’ to speak about his work

February 4, 2014

djerassiChemist and writer Carl Djerassi. Photo by Karen Ostertag.

 

As a chemist, Carl Djerassi developed the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive. It became “the Pill” and changed the dynamics of human sex and reproduction.

Since the mid-1980s, Djerassi has developed a second career as a writer. Most of his five novels and 11 plays are exercises in what he calls “intellectual smuggling” — explaining scientific processes to non-scientists and exploring the ethical and moral implications of science and technology.

Djerassi calls his genre science-in-fiction because, unlike science fiction, the science he write about is real. Bridging the sciences and humanities is critical to understanding the world, he said, but it can be controversial among specialists in both fields.

“Science is threatening to many people in the humanities,” Djerassi, 90, said in an interview last week from his home in California, where he had just returned after a busy lecture schedule in Europe, where he also has homes in Vienna and London.

“Many (scientific) colleagues have criticized me, saying I am washing dirty lab coats in public,” he added. “And I say that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Djerassi will be in Lexington for four events Feb. 13-15 at the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University. His visit is sponsored by a host of UK academic departments, from Chemistry and Pharmacy to Theatre.

His trip was arranged by Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl of Lexington, who got to know Djerassi while she was in medical school at Stanford University. She was one of his teaching assistants, and they have been friends ever since.

Djerassi was born in Vienna in 1923, the son of Jewish physicians, and grew up in Bulgaria. He came to America as the Nazis were coming to power, and he eventually earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1945.

After developing one of the first commercial antihistamines in the 1940s, Djerassi went to Mexico City, where he and several colleagues made their contraceptive breakthrough in 1951. He went on to work in both industry and academia, joining the Stanford faculty in 1960 and helping to develop the Stanford Industrial Park.

Djerassi is one of two American chemists to have won both the National Medal of Science (for “the Pill” synthesis) and the National Medal of Technology (for new approaches to insect control). He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and many foreign academies. He has a long list of honors, from honorary degrees and European medals. Austria put his picture on a postage stamp in 2005.

Djerassi said he had always been interested in literature, but he didn’t begin writing until about age 60 after his girlfriend dumped him. “That really got me going,” he said.

He began writing a novel about their relationship. About the time he was finishing it a year later, the ex-girlfriend sent him flowers and asked to meet.

“Instead of sending her back flowers, I sent her the manuscript,” he said. “She was completely flabbergasted. It brought us together, and we got married.”

The girlfriend who became his third wife was Diane Middlebrook, a Stanford English professor who wrote critically acclaimed biographies of the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.

Djerassi said he decided to close his Stanford lab and devote full-time to writing and lecturing in 1985, when, soon after his marriage, he got a serious cancer diagnosis.

“I wanted to use fiction to talk about things, scientific and technological, that in my opinion were important,” he said. He survived cancer, but it claimed Middlebrook in 2007.

Many of Djerassi’s novels and plays deal with the ethical and societal implications of science — such as the separation of sex from reproduction — as well as the collegial and competitive way science is practiced.

“Ninety percent of the general public thinks they’re not interested (in science), or thinks they don’t understand it or are afraid of it,” he said, adding that most fiction tends to portray scientists as either geeks or idiot savants.

“I thought if I put it in the guise of fiction, I could make it sufficiently interesting that people would read it,” he said. “And they would have learned something without knowing it.”

If you go

Carl Djerassi in Lexington.

  •  Noon, Feb. 13, UK’s Hilary J. Boone Center. Djerassi will speak about academic and business relationships in science to a luncheon. Cost: $30. Reservations deadline Feb. 5. Email: Sylvia4H.art@gmail.com.
  • 4:30 p.m., Feb. 13, Worsham Theatre, U.K. Student Center. Djerassi gives a free, public lecture, “Science on the Page and Stage.” The first 100 students there will get a free copy of one of his books, which he will sign afterward.
  • 3:30 p.m., Feb. 14, Room 102 Cowgill Center at Transylvania. Djerassi will give a lecture, “The Divorce of Sex from Reproduction: The New Facts of Life.”
  • 3 p.m. , Feb., 15, the Art Museum at UK. Actors will read his play “Insufficiency.” A reception with Djerassi will follow.

Father and son show the math in art and the art in math

April 20, 2013

130421Demaines

Martin Demaine, left, and his son, Erik, with one of their paper origami sculptures. 

 

Martin Demaine became a single parent when his son was 2. Suddenly, the visual artist went from being a workaholic who spent little time with Erik to his constant companion, teacher and collaborator.

It has worked out well for both of them. Amazingly well.

When Erik started designing puzzles at age 6, they created a company to sell them. After first grade, Martin home-schooled his son, including teaching him a lot about art. Erik started playing with computers and teaching his father, who has gone on to do computer science research.

At age 20, Erik finished his Ph.D. in computer science and became the youngest faculty member in the history of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then came a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant at age 21 and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship.

130421Demaines1Erik, 31, and Martin, 70, both now teach at MIT. Earlier this month, they were awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Their current research into paper folding holds promise for breakthroughs in fields ranging from engineering to pharmaceuticals.

The Demaines will be in Lexington this week to give two free, public lectures about their research and open an exhibit of their work at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, which will be on display until May 26.

The Demaines will speak on “Algorithms Meet Art, Puzzles and Magic” at 5 p.m. April 24 at the Worsham Theater in UK’s Student Center. The next day, at 4 p.m., they will talk on “Geometric Puzzles” at Transylvania University’s Cowgill Center, room 102.

Their visit was initiated by Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl, a Lexington physician whose son, Adam Suhl, studies with the Demaines at MIT.

Between those lectures, the Demaines will go to Danville to blow glass with Centre College artist Stephen Powell, who they met through mutual friend Lino Tagliapietra, the renowned Italian glass artist. In January, the Demaines plan to spend a week or two at Centre, creating art with Powell and lecturing on mathematics.

In separate telephone interviews last week, the Demaines said they work at the intersection of mathematics and art.

“We have used one to help solve problems with the other,” Martin said. “They are very similar in many ways. They both have these exciting moments when you discover things, when you succeed in visualizing something.”

“It’s all about creativity,” Erik said. “All about having clever ideas and executing those ideas. We look for mathematics in the art we do, and art in the mathematics we do.”

130421Demaines3Many grants now require an artist to be part of the team of research scientists, because it brings a different kind of thinking to the problem-solving process. Much of the Demaines’ work at MIT involves acting as “translators” between artists and scientists.

In addition to creating art, the Demaines teach and have published about 80 scientific papers with each other and a variety of fellow researchers.

The Demaines’ current work began with a fascination for origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. The orgiami pieces in their UK show involve precise circular folds that cause paper to bend itself into distinct shapes. The sculptures are composed of several interlocking pieces of folded paper, sometimes enclosed in a blown-glass vessel they made.

“Origami has always been seen as a recreational art,” Erik said. “But we embraced it as a serious thing. That turned out to be a good bet, because there are a lot of applications to science and engineering.”

For example, their origami research has led to safer automobile airbags. Their research discovered new ways to fold up airbags so that, when they deploy, the force is spread more evenly so drivers and passengers are not injured.

Future applications of such folding techniques include self-supporting structures or even space station modules that could deploy themselves when they reach their destination. But the most exciting possibilities are microscopic.

“I think the big application for us would be if we could help develop techniques for protein-folding that would be better for drug design,” Martin said.

“It’s quite exciting,” he added. “It makes life for us an adventure. We are just hoping that more doors will open up.”

 


Idea Festival speaker explains the science of kissing

September 22, 2011

LOUISVILLE — To Sheril Kirshenbaum, a kiss is not just a kiss.

The researcher and author opened the second day of the Idea Festival on Thursday with a lecture on the topic of her new book, The Science of Kissing.

Smooching, she explained, really is about chemistry. And biology. And evolutionary impulses about reproduction that are very different among men and women.

“A first kiss is nature’s ultimate litmus test,” Kirshenbaum said.

While men often see kissing as a means to an end (sex), women, who often have more acute senses of taste and smell, use it as an important indicator of whether to pursue a relationship. They literally are trying to find “the right chemistry” because “kissing acts on the body like a drug.”

Among kissing behavior she noted: Most people tilt their heads when they kiss, and two-thirds of them tilt their head to the right. Why is that? One theory is it is the way most infants nurse. Also, she claimed, people are more likely to pass germs through shaking hands than pressing lips.

“The best advice I can give is when you love someone, kiss them often,” she said.

Kirshenbaum is a scientist at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy. Aside from studying kissing, her work focuses on increasing public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans and culture. She also writes the blog Culture of Science.