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Compelling Objects

Objects are compelling. I don’t mean the glitter of diamonds, or the flash of a new Ferrari. Instead, I am referring to the “little” things, the common things, the stuff of daily life. What makes these items compelling? It is an intriguing Pipe Wrenchquestion because the common items of our daily lives, those things that we use and reuse everyday, become invisible to us in the present. We don’t even think about them as we use them. Yet, they become invaluable to those in the future who will try to understand our history and our culture. As the “bad anthropologist,” Dr. Renee Beloq, explained to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “This is a common watch. Worth little today. But bury it in the ground for a hundred years and it becomes an artifact worth much to those who find it.”  What is it that makes common objects  from the past so compelling to us today?

The answer to this question has many aspects. An object may be compelling because it has monetary value. Think about the grave robbers throughout history who have plundered the tombs of the wealthy. I may be going out on a limb here, but I believe their motivation was economic gain, not thoughtful remembrance. An object may be compelling because it reminds us of past experiences. The ticket to a rock concert, that prom dress, the home run ball caught in the bleachers are all compelling for the memories that they bring back to us in a rush so real it is as if we were there again. Objects can be compelling because theymens-lime-green-leisure-suit teach us, or remind us, of something about ourselves. We all carry images of ourselves throughout our lives. That Fifth Grade report card with the prominent “D” in mathematics may alter some of those ideas, as will the lime green leisure suit with the wide white belt and/or the blue and white striped bellbottom pants and the brown platform shoes. We tend to remember ourselves in kindly fashion….sometimes fashion gently reminds us that we were slightly different than we remember. These are all good, and if you will, compelling reasons for the attraction of artifacts. There is one more; one that, regardless of age or experience, captures our attention.

Artifacts are compelling because every artifact contains a story.  Regardless of  your age, where you live, what you do for a living, how much money you do or do not make, or whether you are literate or not, stories dominate your life. They explain childhood, or college, or the birth of children or the deaths of loved the-watercoolerones. We create stories about our lives everyday. Around the dinner table, or the water cooler, we share the experiences of our lives with others through stories. The answer to “How was work?”, or “What did you do in school today?”, or “How are you?” comes in the form of a story. Facebook posts, “tweets” on Twitter, and “Selfies” on Instagram are stories….vignettes of our daily existence that we share with others. Stories are the ways in which we communicate with others in our society. Artifacts also tell stories.

Every artifact was created for a purpose. Someone had to think about its creation, its design, its manufacture and its use. Further, someone had to make the object. Others used it. Someone saved it, someone else threw it away. Someone else found it, and now someone (you) are analyzing it. How did it come into your hands? How many stories have we identified for just one object, 9 or 10?  If we communicate with each other through storytelling, and if artifacts all contain 9 or 10 stories, then artifacts from the past communicate stories of their time to us in the present. They are not just stories about history. They are stories about math (creation, design, manufacture), science archimedes_screw(manufacture, use), economics (transport, distribution), anthropology (ownership, retention, class, status), history (cause and effect) and Language Arts (how are you going to tell the story). Artifacts are compelling because they contain a rich trove of stories that tell us something about the past and assist us in understanding something about ourselves today. As the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan concluded in 1980, “Recognizing that the past is slipping into oblivion, we wish to rescue what we can. In the process we not only reclaim the people and the culture of an earlier time, but also enlarge and enrich our general conception of the world – and thereby, inevitably, though perhaps unintentionally, a sense of ourselves.”

Artifacts are compelling because they contain stories. Artifacts engage us because stories are the stuff of our lives. They reassure us that even though our experiences are fleeting, our stories will remain after us. Artifacts not only tell stories about the past, they also widen our vision of the present.





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“As the pace of scientific discovery and innovation accelerates, there is an urgent cultural need to reflect thoughtfully about these epic changes and challenges. The challenges of the twenty-first century require new interdisciplinary collaborations, which place questions of meanings and values on the agenda.”                               William Grassie


As tools for teachers, artifacts possess characteristics that beg their use in the classroom. We should probably spell artifacts with three “I’s” because artifacts are inherently interdisciplinary, intellectually engaging, and instructionally sound.  Here’s what I mean.

Because humans created them, all artifacts contain “purpose.” They were made to do something: fix a drain, chop down a tree, carry water, stir soup, connect wires… This underlying cause for its existence connects every artifact to each of the major academic disciplines. Briefly, each artifact had to be designed (math, science, art), constructed (math, science, language arts), applied waywiser(sociology, language arts, history), evaluated for its effectiveness (math, science, sociology, history, language arts), modified (match, science, language arts) and stored for future use (anthropology, history). As an example, let’s use a fairly common item, a waywiser. This is a wheel attached to a rod with a forked end (like the front tube on a bicycle). Attached to the fork is an assembly that counts one full revolution of the wheel. A waywiser is used to measure distances. The circumference of the wheel is a standard measure, usually one yard or one meter. The waywiser counts the number of meters/yards in a straight line so that the operator knows immediately the distance covered. It is a simple device, yet it is a very important device. Here is how a teacher from each discipline might use a waywiser in a classroom, after having the students analyze  and determine what the object might be and how it might be used:

Math: a waywiser is a practical application of the principles of pi, diameter, and circumference. For younger students, a waywiser teaches circles, arcs, and measurements of size. Its applications apply to basic math, algebra and geometry.

Science: our waywiser provides accurate measurements of distance. Crime Scene Investigators (CSI’s) use waywisers to measure stopping distances in order to determine the speed and stopping time of vehicles. Physics instructors working in speed, velocity, and its gravitational effects require accurate straight-line distance measurements. Waywisers are used to obtain those measurements.

Language Arts: our waywiser can be used as the key element in creative short-stories, descriptive essays, and persuasive pieces that require conclusions based on evidence. Writing prompts might include, “Describe the use of a waywiser in law enforcement,” or “Write a persuasive essay  in which the accuracy of a waywiser measurement is the key element in your argument,” or “Write a creative short story in which the operator of a waywiser is the central character in solving a crime.” Providing a prompt as simple as, “Write clear, concise  instructions for using this waywiser so that any operator would be able to read your directions, pick up the waywiser and be successful in its operation,” provides an additional opportunity for young writers.

Social Sciences: for historians, an assignment might be to research how the design of the waywiser has changed over time, and why. Teachers might begin with the hint that a waywiser was used to measure and calculate the base of the Great Pyramids at Giza. What other applications might students find through historical research? Anthropology and sociology teaches can look at the application of the waywiser in building other sites, as well as the societal organization required to complete projects of monumental size.

Most certainly, introducing the waywiser as a problem to solve, “What is this?”, followed by discipline-specific questions, “How does this demonstrate the math principles we have been studying?”, “How is this object significant in our approach to the physics of An Apple composed by several fruitsvelocity and gravity?”, and so on, provides a new and engaging element in your repertoire of classroom practices. By now, you should be asking, where do I get one of these things, how big is it, and how much does it cost?  You can go out and purchase one of these items for $85 to $125, load it into your car, carry it to your classroom, use it,  store it somewhere and do it all again next time you teach the topic, OR you can go to, subscribe to their site, and get a waywiser and dozens of other interdisciplinary teaching tools for the same price. It would seem far more wise to do the latter rather than the former.

Next time, we will demonstrate how artifacts are intellectually engaging and instructionally sound. For now, remember that in every major discipline, ARTIFACTS TEACH.





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Our last entry concentrated on using artifacts as an introduction to a lesson. Let’s look at how to use an artifact as the focus of a lesson. We’ll look at how to employ artifacts as the centerpiece of the lesson through the lens of four disciplines.

For Language Arts teachers, using an artifact comes most naturally. Placing the artifact in the students’ hands and asking them to write a creative essay about finding the piece, or using it, or describing the journey of the artifact into the classroom both engages Screenshot 2014-06-10 16.10.02students immediately, and offers them a tangible basis for their stories. One might use a bottle of patent medicine from the turn of the 20th century. Prompts for students might be “Write a story about who might use this medicine and for what reasons.” Another good storyline would be, “Write a story about finding this bottle of medicine in your grandmother’s pantry, and asking her how she used it as a cure for your father’s ills while growing up.” You could also write an argumentative essay calling for a ban on “home remedies” that contained more than 70% alcohol. Finally, you might ask students to write a creative essay about waiting in line to receive your “weekly dose” of the family’s “cure-all.”


For Science teachers, listing and looking up the ingredients used in making “Pepto-Mangan” would lead to an interesting discussion of chemicals, their interaction and palliative effects. It could also lead to an effective scientific discussion of regulation of items by Chemical-Element-Symbols-1690506the Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, science teachers could correlate these ingredients with those in the herbal, over-thecounter products offered in health stores today. Scientific vocabulary can be supported in defining the differences among solutions, amalgams and emulsion. Such a discussion might include identifying “Pepto-Mangan” as an emulsion, and providing the scientific basis for its classification.

For Math teachers, the percentages of each ingredient used to compound “Pepto-Mangan” provide a “real-world” approach to using the principles of math in daily life. For younger students, shapes are an shapesimportant mathematical concept. How many different shapes comprise the bottle (including the cap) and its labeling? Hexagons, circles, and rectangles abound in this artifact.

For Social Studies teachers, this artifact can lead into a discussion of the need for a Food and Drug Act in 1906. It can be used in economics to discuss labeling, marketing and individualization. Why for instance, is this bottle hexagonal, not cylindrical? The wording used in the labeling can be examined in sociology Food and Drug Actand history classes to uncover trends at the turn-of-the-century. History teachers can utilize this object in the study of technology, the story of medicine, or a comparison with today’s ideas and products surrounding health and health remedies.

All of this leads to the most basic and fundamental reason for using artifacts in ANY CLASSROOM: Artifacts engage students immediately. Artifacts provide an avenue for exploration and analysis. Which would you prefer in math class, a worksheet of percentage calculations, or a percentage exercise based on a real-world object, one that has a notorious past as well? In science, which is better, a written definition and explanation, or a hands-on experience with a product that employs the principles involved in the lesson? Artifacts open the door to creative thinking and problem solving. Artifacts engage students. Artifacts are adaptable across disciplines. Because they are made by humans, they are interdisciplinary by their very nature.





Currently, five topics comprise the discipline we call the “Language Arts.” Those five are reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing. Four of the five are fairly self-explanatory. It is “viewing” that is unfamiliar. “Viewing” refers to the “ability to interpret, Taos Pueblonegotiate and take meaning from information presented in the form of an image.” Photographs, paintings, lithographs, Power Points and films are just some of the items included under this topic. Regardless of the category, artifacts provide a focus that engages students as they learn and practice the 21st century skills we call the “Language Arts.”

In reading, artifacts have served as the focus of short stories and novels from the beginning. Examples are plentiful, but here are just a few: Edgar Alan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Jack Finney’s “Contents of a Dead pit and pendMan’s Pockets,” and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. In each of these literary masterpieces, one or more objects – artifacts – is central to the storyline. If you remove the gifts from O. Henry’s narrative, there is no story. Remove the pendulum and gone is the suspense in Poe’s work. Remove the blood-stained bandage from Stephen Crane’s novella and there is nothing around which to examine the larger themes of passion, cowardliness, fear and redemption. The point is that objects have focused the narrative in outstanding literature throughout our history. Artifacts can focus your students’ narrative writing as well.

What would happen if you placed a ripped and discolored backpack in front of your students and said, “Write the story of how this backpack arrived in this classroom.” What other artifact might engage your students? A cracked iPad? A set of car keys? A car keyschipped and battered football helmet? A worn dog collar? Two torn tickets to the Prom? What object or artifact can you think of that would engage your students in telling an interesting and compelling story?

Objects are also perfect for expository writing. If the purpose of expository writing is to “explain, inform, or describe,” what better focus to employ than an artifact? Why not pick up the first object you see in your kitchen, or on your front lrectangular-lawn-sprinkler-2975-hk-14627-pawn some morning and make it the focus of your expository exercise? Why not have all of your students do the same? Place all the objects in the front of the room and have students choose one to describe, or explain the connection between two (or more)? What if you had an entire closet full of interesting artifacts from all over the world to choose from? Artifacts are perfect “starters” for expository writing, because



We live in the Age of Information and Technology. Our access to knowledge seems to accelerate every few months. What was the quickest avenue to look up facts, or background material or context six or twelve months ago has given way to faster, technology-agedifferent paths to locate the information we seek. Only we “old folks”  “Google It” anymore. Young people find their information on “You Tube,” where they can instantly view multiple videos that provide them what they need. Computers, the Internet, iPads, Kindles, etc. offer ready access to vast amounts of information. Long before our students reach us, highly competitive parents have introduced our students to sites like,, and Older students are even more practiced at locating necessary information. It is time for us to catch up. We must realize that our students are already well-experienced at finding information.

As educators, we must come to grips with our new reality. We no longer “deliver” information to empty minds. Our job is to help our students learn to sift through the vast stores of facts available to them, help them organize that information into an age-appropriate whole, and be able to apply that information effectively in their personal environment. Study, after study, after overwhelmed teacherstudy emphasizes the principle that critical thinking – observation, analysis, synthesis and communication – is the essential tool that all students, regardless of age, need in order to be successful. I can hear you saying to yourself, “He’s wrong… He’s out of touch… I have to teach the fundamentals (counting, integers, negative numbers, coefficients, irrational numbers, differentials, factoids)… I have standards to meet and improvement to demonstrate…I have a principal who wants more math practice so that our yearly scores go up, not down.” Let me tell you that I know and I understand. I am NOT attempting to change what you need to do. I AM trying to change the way you get it done.

For years, the standard rule in math has been “practice and repetition;” introduce the principle, then practice over and over until “mastery” has been achieved. Nice theory. My question for you is, “How’s that working out for you?” My reading of the results Bad-Mathfrom standardized tests throughout the US indicates that the “Old Methods” are not working well. Students’ math scores have not significantly improved at any level since the NCLB mandated them. So, why do we continue to “practice and repeat” a system that by all empirical measures, does not work? (See The Cato Handbook for Education, 7th ed., 2009; Tim Walker, “PISA 2009..”, NEA Today, December, 2010, and National Research Council Report, “Standardized Testing and Education Improvement” 2011)

I am here to recommend that we “Engage to Change.” Specifically, I am advocating the use of artifacts – real objects from the present or the past – to teach math. Studies have demonstrated that students engage most in learning when they perceive that the lesson affects their daily lives.(See the work of Dr. Constance Steinkuehler on Adolescent Online Games and Reading, and the work of the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery). Early Childhood educators know this principle well, and have applied it for years. engagementThey have used “everyday things” to teach comparison, sorting and classifying, pattern recognition, meaningful counting, measurement, fractions, and on and on. “Promoting an attitude of delight and fascination with numbers encourages children to embrace rather than fear math, creating life-long math learners.”(Gretchen Damon, “Using Everyday Materials to Teach Math.”, Early Childhood News, 2007). These same principles can be applied beyond the K-5 classroom.

Why not employ Native American pottery to teach geometry? Why not use that same pottery to create algebra problems? “If the volume of this jug is 3 quarts and each person in a pueblo of 250 people uses 2 gallons of water each day,how many jugs of water jugwater are necessary to provide for the town?” “If the river is 1/2 mile from the pueblo, how many trips must be made each day to make sure that all the people have enough water?” “How many miles are traveled in a day? A week? A year?” What if Native American pottery does not engage your students? Well, then, how about “poop”? What student doesn’t like to say “poop” in class? Just change the basis of the equation and use a chamber pot.

Here is how you can accomplish the same end with a different artifact. Be sure that students understand the purpose of a chamber pot. Have them calculate the volume of the pot. Provide for them the number of chamber pots that a fChamber potamily of four would require. Place the pots at different levels of a 3-story house with 16 stairs between each floor. Now, create your math problems concerning time, distance, quantity, effort, etc. “But,” you say, “that is just another story problem.” The difference, and it is an important difference, is that the pot is in the room, in front of the students. They can see it, touch, lift it. Gauge its weight. Imagine using it. You have engaged them with the artifact, which also engages them in the problem solving.

Pick an artifact, place it in front of the students and turn them loose! How about using a compass or an egg beater to teach red marblestrigonometry? What could you do with a 12-candle, candle mold? Why not try a garden hose to teach algebra, and a set of marbles to teach everything from counting to calculus? I cannot provide you with an example for each and every math principle or math lesson. But, I can assure you that everyday objects – artifacts – contain the potential to engage your students. Stop and think. What can you trip over on the way to work that you can use to engage your students and make math enjoyable? These everyday things are artifacts and



In the last entry, I outlined the philosophical basis for using everyday things – artifacts – to teach science. Now, we are going to move into the classroom and talk about specific lessons you can employ.

Let’s be clear about what “science” is. Scientific study consists of two parts: CONTENT and PROCESS. “Content” is comprised of Image-Atom-Sciencethe facts, principles, laws, theories and hypotheses that we normally think of when the term “science” is used. Newton’s Laws of Motion, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the principle of refraction, and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution all fall into the area of science “content.” In the “process” category would fall the observations, scientificmethod.jpgexperimentation, imagination, critical thinking, and prediction that are associated with the “Scientific Method.” In science, artifacts provide the “stuff” of process to examine and explore the “stuff” of content. Without an object for observation, the “process” is useless. Without the process of examination and experimentation, the object remains unknowable.

For our first classroom example, let’s look at a pencil. It is a common tool with which students of all ages are familiar. What content could you explore if you placed a No. 2 wooden pencil in front of a group of 4 students? Most certainly the 500. pencilsprinciples of measurement, not only inches, millimeters, and centimeters, but also circumference, diameter and mass would be the simplest content here. Higher grades might explore types of solutions (“What is that black stuff in the middle?”), or friction (How do erasers work?), or bonding (What keeps the center from falling out?). Advanced students can explore more sophisticated content: add a No. 4 and a No. 6 pencil to the mix. Ask what content explains the differences they can discern through process. A simple tool, the common wooden pencil evokes the process that leads students to the discovery of science content.

Let’s use a simple toy, a marble, for our second example. Once again, measurement is the key principle here. However, the measurements are different. They are not linear. Circles and spheres along with size and volume are more pertinent. Again, upper grades and advanced students can deal with more difficult questions. “What are the properties of spheres?” “How do marblemarbles demonstrate Newton’s Laws of Motion?” What do the terms, “clear,” “opaque,” and “marbled” mean? “How did the ‘Cat’s Eye’ get in there, anyway?”  In another class, you might create an entire activity involving different sizes of marbles to examine and demonstrate Newton’s Laws of Motion. Regardless, we have a simple object, one common to most households that becomes the focus of the process in order to clarify, explain and understand the content of science.

Finally, let’s use a coffee cup or a teacup. What content can students learn here using the scientific process? We have a more complex item, one that contains partial spheres or ellipses, with straight lines intersecting round surfaces. There are volumes to Coffee-Cupmeasure, and the transfer of heat and cold to consider. The composition and design is important to the purpose as well. From the earliest grade levels to students involved in chemistry and physics, a coffee cup provides the means to study the content of science.

The problem that the coffee cup presents for you is the same for all objects. How long before a student breaks the item? What is the cost of replacement? Will the others in the teachers lounge discover that you “borrowed” the broken-coffee-mugcup from them for the class? Objects can be expensive, difficult to replace or time-consuming to find. What if you could choose from an unlimited number of objects for your students to examine? What if your students could manipulate them without the fear of breaking or damaging them? What if an unlimited number of virtual objects were available for the cost of 4 artifacts you might purchase for your classroom?

We know that artifacts engage, excite, entertain and teach. We know that objects – simple everyday items – can be used to convey both the process and the content of science. We know that objects are tools we can use, because we know that



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I have been reading an interesting little book of late. It is Schmidt and Rockcastle’s, Teaching Science with Everyday Things (AIMS Education Foundation, 1995). It was written in part to be of “practical help to teachers…and to college students preparing to be teachers,” with a special emphasis on those “who may lack confidence in teaching science or whose background in science may be limited.” (vii) That last part defines me pretty well. I was a great K-12 science student. In fact, I entered college with the intent of VW Vanbecoming a research zoologist. To make a long story short, some things got in the way: calculus, physics and the ‘60s. Mostly, I think, it was the ‘60s and the challenges that era presented my generation. I moved into the Social Sciences and became a historian with the intent of finding the “truth,” exposing the “corrupt,” and making sense of a world that seemed upside down. Yet, I never truly forgot the lessons and approaches that science had contributed to my education. When I moved into teaching, I found that the “real sciences” both supported and helped explain many of the concepts I attempted to “teach” my students. Finding and reading Teaching Science with Everyday Things, I was reminded once again, just how interconnected “real” science and the Social Sciences remain.

I am a major proponent of interactive, collaborative learning focused on teaching with artifacts. As I have tried to make clear over the past several weeks and months, artifacts teach the 21st century skills that colleges and employers require. Among those skills are the ability to think critically, to synthesize many sources into a cohesive whole, draw conclusion from and make an argument based on evidence, and communicate that argument effectively to a wider audience. It is comforting to find those same statements made not only about science in general, but also about using artifacts (everyday things) to teach science.

Schmidt and Rockcastle make the point very early that, “All learning in science is based fundamentally upon firsthand experiences with real things.” [My emphasis] (vii) They repeat their assertion again later in the text, “First-hand experiences are, in the final Apple-Heart-Caring-223x300analysis, the basis of all learning.” (6) They also define teaching in a modern fashion. For them, teaching is, “setting up situations in which learning cannot help but take place.” (2) They wisely suggest the use of everyday objects in creating these situations as the objects engage students because they are familiar. This familiarity allows the application of ingenuity in answering the question or solving the problem posed. Everyday objects are “as intriguing and challenging to slow learners and poor readers as to gifted pupils.” (2) In other words, artifacts engage science students in an effective learning environment that allows naturally for diversity. Are those not the goals and objectives established for all 21st century classrooms?

Schmidt and Rockcastle also demonstrate that using artifacts in science teaches important attitudes and skills. The first of those is the formation of a “scientific attitude.” This is defined as an attitude that promotes finding answers through observing, critical_thinking_skills-300x236experimenting and reasoning. This sounds very similar to the Social Sciences definition of critical thinking. Furthermore, teaching science with artifacts, “ allows all students to practice analytical and observational skills, develop communications skills and apply creativity in problem solving. “(7) It would seem that teaching science with artifacts is very much like using artifacts to teach the Social Sciences.

At the philosophical level, artifacts teach science well. They avoid the 20th century model of disseminating information from those 21st Century skillswho “have” to those who “have not,” and allow for both personal and collaborative investigation and discovery. Additionally, artifacts engage science students, with more familiar objects engaging students more readily. Using artifacts in the science classroom develops the 21st century skills (critical thinking, communication, collaborative problem-solving) that college admissions deans and corporate human resources directors seek in today’s world.

Next time, we’ll talk about specific examples and demonstrate classroom examples of teaching science with artifacts. Until then, remember, using objects to teach science is a philosophically and pedagogically sound approach in science. Or as they say at my house,