My mother-in-law has a running joke that goes something like this: If you don't come up with any ideas for your birthday gift, you'll get a four-ft-tall Galileo thermometer.
I always ask for jewelry.
This summer, however, I received a Galileo thermometer for my desk. It was a thank you for being a judge at the FIRST Robotics competition. Apparently, it's FIRST founder Dean Kamen's trademark gift. Given his passion for exposing kids to engineering and technology, I now can see why.
A Galileo thermometer is not only a novelty item, but also a great learning tool. It attracted lots of attention sitting on my desk, and gave me an opportunity to revisit Archimedes Principle and the Ideal Gas Law in action.
For those of you unfamiliar with this device, it's essentially a sealed glass tube filled with water and a series of glass balls with weights attached. As the temperature of the outside air changes, the temperature and therefore the density of the water also changes—causing the balls to float or sink.
Frankly, it was my co-workers' curiosity about the thermometer that caused me to rethink my own gift-giving practices. My nieces usually get clothes. My nephews get the latest Simpson paraphernalia. Not exactly items that would inspire them to go on to study engineering (which I hope they do)!
When I think of the really great gifts I received as a kid, the toy steam engine sticks out in my mind. So does the magnet set. Greg Vrana, a contributing writer to Design News and electrical engineer, says that a crystal radio set sparked his interest. My husband, who has a degree in materials science, fondly recalls his Kenner Girder and Panel Construction Set (http://users.rcn.com/ed.ma.ultranet/gphistory.html). What childhood toy inspired you to go into engineering? What is the best toy to buy kids today? Let me know, and I'll share your thoughts with our readers.
My mother-in-law was right about the Galileo thermometer. And that's no joke!