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I wrote about this photo in a different context recently on a makers grimoire, but reflecting back on the moment I built this model of a force pump, I’m taken by the awareness I had at the time.

At the time, a student in our eighth grade science class had asked me what a force pump was, and I responded by leading the student over to the computer, where we looked it up on Google. The definition was singularly unsatisfactory to me: (the one in the link doesn’t match the one in the quote, but it’s similarly vague) “a machine for pumping water from one place to another.” She was, though, and read the definition off the computer screen with this tone of voice, “Oh!” that teens use to suggest “I have enough of an answer, o adult; thank you for assisting me.”

The designer in me was dissatisfied with that answer though. I flipped over to Google images. Shortly I had a picture of a force pump. And from that image, I built a 3-D model of a force pump — tape, a wooden dowel, and two cardboard tubes.

(Those tubes were left over from the playground project several months ago. We had gathered a lot of cardboard and now we have cardboard out the wazoo. Too much.)

So, I showed my model to the student who’d asked in the first place, and this time she said “Oh!” in that tone of voice that kids use to say, “wow, I now understand something I had no idea I needed to understand that deeply before it made sense.”

A few moments later, another eighth grade student looked at my paper model and said, “now I have a clear image in my mind of how such a thing works! Thanks, Mr. Watt!”

And of course, the awareness I had at the time was pleasure. I love helping people understand stuff, and this seemed like a great one to help kids understand — a common enough machine in our world. Yet I found myself wondering — how many such models should I and my colleagues and students build? Would a video have been enough? Could you have watched a two-minute Khan Academy video and have understood a force pump?

I’ve written before about teaching creativity by using model, language and value, but I think this is something I need to return to again soon. It turns out that the mindset I’ve cultivated — “oh, hey… I should build one of those…” — is difficult to teach through direct instruction. Yet it pays off massive dividends in learning. Ultimately it’s better when that mindset can be transferred to students than to adults, though. And I wonder how to accomplish that.