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The Electric Life of Ben Franklin

As you do your own investigations and projects with electricity, you might want to think about a STEMist from the past who was also interested in electricity: Benjamin Franklin.

The Electric Life of Ben Franklin

A Founding Father of America

While Franklin is best remembered as one of America’s founders, he was also a man of many interests.  During his life he was a writer and publisher, a scientist, a businessman, and a politician.

booktitlepageHe was also an avid reader who loved to learn about all sorts of things.  Franklin even wrote about how best to educate young people–both boys and girls.  Not only did he want both boys and girls to have an education; he also worked for the abolition of slavery in the United States, serving as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Mrs. Silence Dogood

Though his father was a soap and candle maker, Ben was sent to be an apprentice to his brother James, a printer.  Ben learned to set the type (the letters that were inked and applied to paper to print pages) and publish newspapers and pamphlets.  When Ben showed James some of his own writing, James refused to print them.

Mrs. Silence DogoodTo get around this, Ben sent things to the paper using a pen name, Mrs. Silence Dogood.  James Franklin gladly published Mrs. Dogood’s writing until he learned “she” was really Ben, his little brother.  Ben then ran away to New York, then moved to Philadelphia, where he remained for most of his life.

The Kite, the Key and a Leyden Jar

Most STEMists know the story of Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with the kite and the key.  He did not discover electricity–people already knew it existed.  Franklin wanted to demonstrate that lightning was electricity.

Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with the kite and the key and a Leyden jar

While many illustrations show him holding the key as lightning strikes the kite, that is not exactly the way Franklin described it in a letter he wrote.  He likely used the key to capture an electrical charge in a Leyden jar (a jar used for storing static electricity.)

A Leyden jar is a device used for storing static electricity.

Holding the key in his hand would have been dangerous, and some who tried to repeat Franklin’s experiment were electrocuted.

Top portion of a lightning rod

Franklin used the results of his kite experiment to invent the lightning rod, saving many homes and barns from fires.

The physicist Michael Faraday mentioned Franklin’s experiments on ice and electricity.  Franklin observed that liquid water was a good conductor of electricity (like the wet kite string in his most famous experiment) but that ice was a poor conductor.  Franklin also noticed that heat could sometimes make poor conductors into better conductors of electricity.

STEMists can learn a lot from Benjamin Franklin, a man who was curious about the world around him and who never stopped learning new things.

Groovy Hydroponic Gardens Around the World

The advantages of hydroponic growing gardens and farms are gaining interest around the world.  Hydroponics uses less water than traditional farming, is environmentally friendly, and produces more plants, fruits and vegetables.  Also, it requires less space and uses less energy.

Groovy Hydroponic Gardens Around the World

The hydroponic method of growing can be accomplished through vertical gardens on urban rooftops, in closed domes and greenhouses, on open land farms or in your own home.

Check out these groovy hydroponic farms and gardens around the world:

Epcot Center Green Houses

The Land Pavilion at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center The Land Pavilion at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida, consists of several connected greenhouses where fruits and vegetables grow in the air, water and sand. The plants grow in vertical towers, conveyor belts, above-ground pipes, cool containers and spiral structures. The Land tour takes visitors on a groovy ride through its Sustainable Agriculture and Research Center, where these methods of growing are used to cultivate a spectacular variety of herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers.

The aeroponic method of growing, where roots are exposed to the air and sprayed with nutrient-based water, is used to grow Brussels sprouts, okra and herbs in the Pavilion.  You can also see edible flowers, such as marigolds, poppies, lavender, viola and snap dragons, growing in an aeroponic vertical tower.

O’Hare Airport

O'Hare Airport aeroponic vertical garden The first aeroponic vertical garden located in an airport opened in 2013 at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Illinois.  A water-nutrient solution cycles through 26 towers that hold over 1,100 plant roots suspended in the air.  The 928-square-foot indoor garden produces a fresh supply of greens that are then used by chefs at Stanley’s Blackhawks Lounge, Wicker Seafood and Sushi Restaurant, Wolfgang Puck and other airport restaurants. STEMists can find the special garden in between O’Hare’s terminals 2 and 3 in the mezzanine level of the Rotunda Building.

Miyagi Prefecture Farm

Miyagi Prefecture FarmPlant physiologist Shigeharu Shimamura converted a Sony semiconductor plant in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture into the world’s largest indoor farm. About the size of a football field, the farms uses 17,500 LED lights spread across 18 cultivation racks, each towering 16 levels high. The LED bulbs provide a most favorable wavelength of light that increases plant growth by 250 percent!  The indoor farm decreases water usage to only 1% of what’s used in conventional farms and a 50% decrease in produce waste.  An astounding 10,000 heads of lettuce are cultivated each day.

Gotham Greens

Gotham Greens

Gotham Greens in New York City operates three rooftop greenhouses that use the hydroponic method of growing.  The first Gotham Green facility, located in Brooklyn, produces over 100 tons of greens each year. A second location in Brooklyn sits atop Whole Foods Market, and produces over 200 tons of greens and tomatoes.  Gotham Greens’ largest rooftop greenhouse is located in Queens and boasts 60,000 square feet of growing space.

Hydro-Taste U-pick Farm

Hydro-Taste U-pick FarmSTEMists can pick their own fruits and vegetables at Hydro-Taste Hydroponic U-pick Farm located in Myakka City, Florida, about 22 miles east of Sarasota. Visitors can pick from 250,000 hydroponic plants, including strawberries, blueberries, kale, corn, peppers and cabbage. The benefits of hydroponic farming are evident at Hydro-Taste. At this farm,  60,000 strawberry plants grow on a half-acre and use only 900 gallons of water a day, whereas the same amount of strawberry plants would take up seven acres on a traditional soil-based ground farm and use over 140,000 gallons of water a day.

Lufa Farms

Lufa FarmsIn 2011, Lufa Farms in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, built the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse that spans 30,000 square feet of sustainable hydroponics.  The main goal of Lufa Farms, like many city rooftop gardens, is to grow food for taste and nutrition – close to where the people live. Its first harvest of tomatoes was distributed to 400 local markets and restaurants.

Water Works” Groovy Lab in a Box

Hydroponic farms and gardens can be found in all parts of the world. However, if one is not close enough to visit you and your STEMists can learn more about hydroponic systems with the educational STEM activities found in the “Water Works” groovy box — explore different types of hydroponic systems, seed germination and photosynthesis! Build a water reservoir, test tube bean stalk, hanging raised beds, a groovy space barn and much, much, more! Practice essential 21st century science skills: pipetting, measuring volume and length, making observations and collecting data. Join Now! and challenge your STEMists to a monthly Groovy Lab in a Box, full of everything a child needs to learn about and do hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) investigations. Our monthly box activates thinking, questioning, inquiring and original creation as we guide children through scientific inquiry and engineering design process.

Failure Is A Groovy Way To Learn

How do you learn?  More than likely, learning from your mistakes is one of the ways you learn. Sometimes STEMists go through school afraid to make a mistake, but we’re here to tell you that failure is a groovy way to learn. Failure is how we all get better; it’s how we succeed.
Failure Is A Groovy Way To Learn

Failure also teaches you about resiliency and grit:

  • Resiliency is how you bounce back from adversity
  • Grit is how you persevere through challenges

As you learn and fail, you’ll need to bounce back and hang in there when things get tough. Remember, this is an important part of the learning process.

Scientists, inventors, and engineers are constantly battling failure. They also must be resilient and have a lot of grit to make it through their challenges. These STEMists confront failure and use it to their advantage.  In fact, these failures help them learn how to do their projects better the next time!

So, the next time you fail, remember these stories of how failure can turn into success:

Elon Musk and SpaceXElon Musk

Elon Reeve Musk is an entrepreneur, engineer, inventor and investor; he is the founder of the company that became PayPal; CEO and chief product architect of Tesla Motors; and CEO of SpaceX, the maker of launch vehicles and spacecraft.

Musk’s goal through SpaceX is to revolutionize space technology with reusable rockets so people can live on other planets.

When SpaceX’s latest rocket landing missed the mark, the company tweeted, “Close, but no cigar. This time.” Musk tweeted, “Full RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly) event. Ship is fine minor repairs. Exciting day!”

His attitude is like that of a great inventor—accepting of failure, sometimes even excited—ready to apply what his team has learned to the next launch.

Jack AndrakaJack Andraka

Jack Andraka is a STEMist not much older than you! Born in 1997, Andraka is an inventor, scientist and cancer researcher. When a family friend was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Andraka wanted to find a way to test for cancers – similar to how diabetics check their blood sugar levels every day.

He contacted 200 research labs and universities about his idea – and received 199 rejections. Finally, a professor at Johns Hopkins University agreed to work with Andraka. Thanks for Andraka’s resiliency and grit, he developed a fast, easy way to detect increases in a certain protein, which often indicate early stages of pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers.

J.K. RowlingJ.K. Rowling

Imagine the world without Harry Potter!

After 12 rejections from publishers, author J.K. Rowling sold her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for only $4,000.  Rowling is now worth an estimated $1 billion and has had great success with the Harry Potter series and films.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison, inventor and businessman, had many failures that led him to great inventions.  For example, in 1889, Edison created Edison Portland Cement Co. because he believed everything could be made out of concrete.  Thomas Edison and the light bulbHe made cement cabinets, pianos, and houses; however, people did not purchase many of his products.  Edison realized the public would not pay for his costly cement products.  And, although the idea was not widely accepted, it was not a total failure.  Edison’s company was hired to build Yankee Stadium in the Bronx!

His most notable failure, however, is the light bulb.   Edison created 10,000 prototypes before getting it right.  He said, “I have not failed 100 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Silly PuttySilly Putty

James Wright was an engineer at General Electric when he failed at making a substitute for rubber during World War II.  Wright was hoping his silicone substitute would help the U.S. Government make airplane tires, boots for soldiers, and other items that used rubber during manufacturing at wartime.  These items and other materials were being produced at a faster rate, causing a decrease in the availability of rubber. One of Wright’s experiments included adding boric acid to the silicone oil.  It did not work to replace rubber, but his invention gave children hours and hours of playtime with his Silly Putty invention!

Dr. SeussDr. Seuss Books

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, the first book written by author Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, was rejected by 27 publishers.  This means 27 companies did not think Dr. Seuss knew how to write children’s books! Later, Dr. Seuss’ friend helped him find a company to publish the book, and since then, Dr. Seuss wrote more than 60 books and sold over 600 million copies.  In fact, Dr. Seuss continues to be a best-selling author, even after his death in 1991.

Post-It NotesSpencer Silver, the inventor of the Post-It Note

In 1968, 3M Laboratories researcher and scientist, Spencer Silver, was tasked with creating a strong adhesive. His experiments were not successful, but he did make a less strong adhesive that he learned could be easily removed without leaving a mark on the object or material it was stuck to.  His newest, less strong adhesive was not used by the company.  Nearly six years later, a co-worker took the invention and applied it to scraps of paper to mark his place in his choir hymn book.  Later he applied it to yellow scraps of paper from the 3M Company, and the Post-It Note was born!

Failure is nothing to be ashamed about! In fact, it’s part of your journey to success.  Failure encourages, builds confidence and teaches. It also teaches you to be resilient and have grit.

Groovy STEMists – take notice to what happens when you do an experiment that doesn’t work; check your notes in your lab notebook and learn from them.  Failing to complete one of the Groovy Lab in a Box investigations or engineering design challenges will lead to more successful ones!

Sir Isaac Newton: Groovy In His Own Way

Sir Isaac Newton—about his life, said it best, “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Sir Isaac Newton: Groovy In His Own Way

Many STEMists can identify with Sir Isaac Newton.  Like any modern-day STEMist, Sir Isaac Newton was driven by investigation and a quest for truth—wanting to know how things work and why they work. And, if he found no answer, then he created a way to find one, such as when he developed integral and differential calculus to help determine why planets have an elliptical orbit.

Young Sir Isaac Newton

Newton was born on January 4, 1643, in Woolsthrope, Lincolnshire, England.  Sadly, Isaac Newton never knew his father, who died just three months before Newton was born.

Young Sir Isaac NewtonSoon after, his mother remarried and left Newton with his grandparents. In his preteen years, Newton lived with a local apothecary (pharmacist) where he learned about the fascinating world of chemistry.   It was after her second husband died that Newton’s mother returned for him, along with three half-siblings.  His mother pulled him out of school so he could be a farmer, just as his father was.  Newton, however, found farming to be dull, and he did not do it well.

Universal Law of Gravitation and Laws of Motion

When he was 18 years old, Newton found his passion for mathematics, astronomy, physics and optics while he attended Cambridge University. As time passed, Isaac Newton made many discoveries in each of his passions. However, he is most noted for discovering the Universal Law of Gravitation and Laws of Motion, as published in the 1687, in “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” where he explains:

  • Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Sir Isaac NewtonThe first law (law of inertia) – “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”
  • The second law states that acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass – therefore, the greater the mass of the object, the greater the force required to accelerate it.
  • The third law – “for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction.”

And, although these ideas are centuries old, they are still relevant today, as Neil deGrasse Tyson,  American astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, explains in his video with Big Think:

A Career in Mechanical Engineering

So, how would groovy STEMists of Newtonian thinking choose a career path?  Mechanical engineering as a career will give STEMists many options of industries and type of work to choose.  Mechanical engineers work mostly in engineering services, research and development, manufacturing industries, and the federal government. They design, develop, build, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, engines and machines.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for mechanical engineers was $80,580 (May 2012). STEMists who become mechanical engineers can work in various engineering industries, including:

Women in mechanical engineering

Gretchen Christenson, KU sr. studying mechanical engineering is on the chassis team of the KU Formula car team, a mechanical engineering senior design project. Photo courtesy:


  • Aerospace– designs, manufactures, researches, operates and maintains aircraft
  • Automotive– designs, manufactures, distributes and markets motor vehicles
  • Chemical– covers oil companies, chemicals manufacturers and the businesses that support them
  • Construction– designs and builds infrastructure, buildings and buildings services such as heating and ventilation
  • Consumer goods industry– manufactures products such as household cleaning items, personal hygiene goods and convenience foods
  • Defense – provides equipment, support and services for the armed forces and national security
  • Electronics – designs and manufactures components and installs equipment for various engineering sectors
  • Marine– develops and helps operate boats/ships
  • Materials and metals– develop new materials and manufacture components or end products
  • Pharmaceuticals – develops and manufactures drugs/medication
  • Rail– designs, constructs, manages and maintains rail system components from trains and tracks to electrical power systems and train control systems
  • Utilities – helps supply power, water, waste management and telecoms.

Mechanical engineers are not tied to the industries above. They also can find themselves working in finance, information technology and education.  Or, Groovy STEMists may land a job on Mars through the Mars One mission plan!  By 2024, the plan will set up an outpost where human crew will live and work.  The Mars colony will need workers who have the skills to build and maintain transit vehicles and rovers, life support units that generate energy, water and breathable air, and more!

Mars 1 Mission

Get your STEMists on their way to achieving Newtonian grooviness with a Groovy Lab in a Box monthly-themed subscription.  Your STEMists will try their hand at mechanical engineering, and explore more of Newton’s Third Law with this month’s “Pull Your Weight” box. Order your Groovy box today!

Groovy Pulleys

What do elevators, flagpoles, trains, planes and automobiles have in common? They all use a pulley system.  A pulley is a wheel with a groove that holds a rope, cable or belt, and is used to help lift an object or change the direction of a force.  Too often, we take for granted everyday items that use pulleys as part of their engineered design.

History of pulleys

An advancement on the technology of the wheel, the pulley allowed great weights to be lifted with little force. The first use of a pulley can be traced back to Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer, and philosopher (287 BC – 212 BC).

It was Plutarch – no, not Plutarch Heavensbee from Mockingjay – but the ancient Greek philosopher who recorded that Archimedes designed a block and tackle pulley to move an entire warship, laden with men. This pulley was known as the Claw of Archimedes and nicknamed the “iron hand.” The Claw was an ancient crane with a grappling hook that was able to lift enemy ships out of the water, causing the ships to capsize or be suddenly dropped.

Claw of Archimedes

In fact, STEMists will be surprised to learn that the Greeks used pulley systems to place actors on stage.  Using pulleys on stage continued during the 1500’s in England, when William Shakespeare used a variety of special effects at the Globe Theatre, including flying actors using a pulley system—a technique which is still used in today’s theaters.

Types of Pulleys

Fixed – A fixed (class 1) pulley has a fixed axle, anchored in place, which redirects the force in a rope, called a belt, when it goes full circle.  A fixed pulley has a mechanical advantage of one—it is useful because when you pull down, you can use your body’s own weight to add to the push.
Fixed pulley
Movable – A movable (class 2) pulley has an axle in a movable block. A moveable pulley supports an object with two ropes, placing the pulley in the middle. Since the pulley is being supported by two ropes, the amount of force you need to move an object is cut in half. It has a mechanical advantage of two.
Movable pulley
Compound – A compound pulley is a combination of a fixed and movable pulley that forms a block and tackle, which can have several pulleys mounted on the fixed and moving axles, thereby increasing the amount of force.  The block and tackle has been a key tool for raising boat sails and cargo for centuries.
Compound pulley

How It Works

The design of a wheel on an axle supports movement and changes direction of a rope/belt or cable along the circumference of the wheel.   Pulleys are used to lift loads, apply forces and to transmit power.  In simple terms, your STEMists will understand the concept of an object being too heavy for one person to lift, even for the strongest of men.  For example, if you want to lift a brick that weighs 20 kilograms, you have to pull down with a force equivalent to 20 kilograms. If you want to raise the brick two meters into the air, you have to pull the loose end of the rope a total distance of two meters at the other end. Therefore, with the use of a pulley, your STEMists can effectively multiply the force their body produces.

Be sure to order “Pull Your Weight” – a pulley-themed Groovy Lab in a Box to get your STEMists excited to investigate pulleys, cranes and Newton’s Third Law.

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