Step into Professor Kelly's Curiosity Cabinet

March 27, 2015

A few weeks ago, we went to visit Professor Kelly to find out more about how we could incorporate some of his teaching methods and experiments into our science courses. After that meeting, we knew we had to introduce him and his Curiosity Cabinet to you.

On every surface in his Boston College office, you'll find them — gears, gadgets, turbines, toys, and puzzles — all designed and acquired to get students thinking about one thing: How on Earth does that (object) work? By making learning hands-on, Professor Ross Kelly wants to inspire students to become curious learners.

How Did a Giant Nail Get Inside a Block of Wood?
At the beginning of each semester, Professor Kelly asks his organic chemistry students one question: How did a giant nail get inside a block of wood?

"It's a solid piece of wood and like many of the things in this room, it looks impossible," Kelly says, "but it isn't. It works like this: first, you cut out the notches."

Then comes the part no one can figure out: steam.

"If you put the wood in steam for a while, after a couple of hours, the wood gets very soft" Kelly says. "And if you put a clamp on one end, you can squish it down about half way."

After a couple of hours, the wood has cooled enough so you can remove the clamp without the wood rising — giving you enough space to drill the holes into the three center pieces and slide the nail into place. "The next to last thing you do is put the block back in the steam. The end pops up to about 90% of what it was in the first place. The last thing you do is sand the other three down until they're all even."


Visit the Curiosity Cabinet Online!
It began about 30 years ago with a trip to Milan, Italy — and the discovery of a tiny soccer figurine that seemed to defy the laws of gravity — and has grown exponentially ever since. (That soccer figurine — a player that can "float" a soccer ball above its head using a fast-moving stream of air — actually works in accordance with Bernoulli's principle.)

Over the past three decades, Kelly has collected everything from a Döbereiner Lighter (the precursor to matches) and a carbide cannon (pictured above) to Galileo thermometers, radiometers, and seemingly everything in between. Kelly loves sharing his discoveries with his students. Now, thanks to a new website he created with the help of two undergraduate students, Omar Khan and Jacy Lundberg, Kelly is now able to share those discoveries with the world through the power of video.


Using Mystery to Foster Lifelong Learning
When Kelly was little, he, like many of his friends, had a chemistry set. Today, he finds inspiration in the unlikeliest of places (such as a gift shop in Maine), and doesn't rest until he knows exactly how each thing works — and how he can explain it to his students.

Take the store in Maine. Walking through one day, Kelly noticed a Mova Globe that never seemed to stop spinning. According to the store clerk, the globe was solar-powered, but that proved an entirely insufficient explanation. So Kelly bought the globe, researched it online, and found nothing that would explain the globe's constant state of motion. Until he saw that the globe's inventor had filed a couple of patents.

"I'll show you something before I proceed with that," Kelly says. "I think you learn something when you pick it up. You learn that there's no motor in the base, but you also learn that even though I'm holding the outside, the globe is still moving."

When I ask my students how it works, they usually don't have a clue. But once they figure it out, they're fascinated. As long as I can continue to engage them and inspire their curiosity, I'm going to keep doing these experiments.

The globe, as it turns out, is comprised of concentric spheres "separated by a liquid which is a very low friction bearing."

"One of the reasons I like it," Kelly says, "is that it's so clever. What happens is the solar cells are connected to a motor from which projects a shaft, and the solar cells make the motor turn. Normally, at least I would think, when the motor turns, the shaft would rotate. But that's not what happens."

"Because the shaft is not vertical (If the shaft were vertical, it wouldn't work) and has an unsymmetrical weight attached to it," Kelly says, "gravity acting on the weight keeps the shaft from turning. But since the motor is turning, something has to give. And what happens is that because the friction is really low, the whole sphere (the globe) to which the motor is attached turns instead. I think it's ingenious."

"When I ask my students how it works," Kelly says, "they usually don't have a clue. But once they figure it out, they're fascinated. As long as I can continue to engage them and inspire their curiosity, I'm going to keep doing these experiments."


To find out more about Professor Ross Kelly's Curiosity Cabinet, visit his website and check out this profile published in The Boston Globe.

By Lisa Merlini

Tag: Exploring Education

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