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Lockdown Challenge: Build a bird box and an engineer’s cave

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School holidays and lockdown: if you see this as the perfect combination for some creative parenting, why not join in with the Lockdown Challenge?

We are all stuck – imprisoned even – at home, full-time, with our children.

What an opportunity!

Most engineers and technologists will still be working, although not all. But even then, the removal of commuting time and the streamlining of work down to what is important and needs to get done (I’m not saying all the cross-team catch-up meetings are unnecessary, but...) means work is part of our lives, but not the overwhelming majority of it. Further to that, many of our distractions and pastimes are socially based and are consequently off-limits. The fact that there is no sport to participate in or on telly is causing a major readjustment in many lives. Nights at the pub, going out for dinner, meeting friends, clubs... all replaced by days and nights with the family.

Time – that most precious of commodities – has become a luxury we all have access to.

Engineers tend to be busy. Beyond work, there are always domestic projects on the go. But this new gift of time broadens out the scope of what we can do, particularly when it comes to the ultimate domestic project – children. The children of engineers don’t have it easy. They are expected to show instinctive fascination with maths and science with a view to then going on to do a ‘proper’ degree and get a ‘proper’ job at the end of it. Engineers give these children appropriate STEM-based toys at Christmas and expect the inherent ‘build-it, break-it, understand-it, build-it-better’ gene to kick in. Sometimes it does, but it doesn’t always work that way.

As we all know, the most important thing (apart from love and food) a parent can give their child is time. Could it be that a silver lining to this very dark corona-cloud is the time – and quality time at that  that parents get to spend with their children? Not just time to point the child at the chemistry set, but to sit down and be part of the learning, encouragement and enjoyment.

We all want to do this. Engineers are pretty good at using time well and this includes making time where possible for such activities, but now is an almost unique opportunity to be the parent we always wanted to be.

There’s plenty of screen-based stuff on offer. Endless TED talks, if you get over the slightly stylised and preachy presentation style, can be entertaining and thought-/conversation-provoking. Science-fiction films can be likewise. But it doesn’t mean half as much to the child, or have such an impact, as actually doing stuff together.

So we are launching the Lockdown Challenge. It’s not sophisticated and there are no prizes. It is just, for the duration of our lockdown, a few ideas that might appeal to both engineer and offspring.

DIY stores are shut at the moment, of course, although most are delivering if necessary, but we are assuming that most engineers have garages or sheds with leftover bits of wood (they WILL come in handy one day), a basic toolbox, and a variety of leftover bits and pieces that really should have been thrown out long since. Some of our ideas will go into the realms of science experiments, some are simply just making things – all will encourage creative thought.

The Easter weekend is upon us and the weather set fair (in the UK), but there will be no trips to the countryside, seaside or our favourite National Trust property. Never has a staycation been so close to home. Engineers could argue that they don’t need to be told how to entertain their kids, but maybe, at this time when the value of community has never been more apparent, it is quite a nice thought that the engineering community and their families might all be doing the same activity. Children come in different sizes, of course, and some challenges will be more relevant to one age group than another, but it is surprising how translatable a project can be. Making a scarecrow, for example, can be a simple exercise involving a couple of poles and some old clothes – or it can be a work of art including skillsets from many different crafts. The key ingredient for all age groups is imagination.

The first brace of Lockdown Challenges includes making a bird box and building an Engineers Cave from Lego. As the weeks go by the challenges may get more scientific, but the nature of the first of these two demands early attention.

We would love it if people sent in pictures or videos, or even just suggestions on how to make these challenges better or ideas for new ones. Please email tfryer@theiet.org. 

Incidentally, for those with insatiable appetites for learning there is a host of STEM educational home-learning materials from the IET at:

https://education.theiet.org/key-stage-1-2-3-and-4-free-stem-resources/home-learning-resources-key-stage-1-and-2/

Lockdown Challenge #1 – Build a bird box 

Kids love nature and the relationship between the environment and engineering has never been more compelling. A bird box demonstrates this to even very young children.

Despite what you might think, it is never too late to put up a bird box. Birds use them for roosting (resting) all year, even when not nesting. They provide warmth and protection in winter, which is why sometimes the optimal time for putting up a bird box is early winter, so our feathered friends can roost and feel comfortable enough in it to nest in the spring. By Easter, most garden birds have got their nests in order, but not all.

While robins and thrushes will have finished their nests by now, some tits will just be getting going, as will some of the tardier sparrows. Swallows are only just coming back from their winter sun holidays in Africa, while there is another month before the swifts return. What better gift for these later arrivals than a new house?

Building a bird box is not difficult, but like all such things, the involvement of a child is scalable. Obviously, wood needs to be cut and nails banged in, and there is an argument that the younger someone is entrusted with such skills the more they can then build on them in the future.

Birds don’t ask for much. They want warmth, security and minimal disruption. There is no need for an en suite or conservatory. Bird box designs can be very simple and we would recommend the design from the RSPB. Materials needed to make this are a short plank of wood and some nails, perhaps a small piece of rubber to provide water-proofing, but this can be improvised.

If you don’t have a plank of wood, then it would be easy to use off-cuts. The only requirement is that it should be at least 15mm thick to provide the necessary warmth, and not be pressure-treated wood – the stuff typically used for decking or other outdoor uses. The chemicals used in the process are thought to be unappealing to birds. If your wood supplies are largely made up of the broken down pine furniture (e.g. bunk beds) that the kids have grown out of, this is fine. Pine won’t last as long as harder woods but you will still get a few years out of it, and it's easy to work with of course.

This is a basic design, but as stated, birds aren’t after much more. However, even with this design, there is room for home improvements. A metal surround to the entry hole (you can buy these if you can’t make one) will stop predators like larger birds and squirrels enlarging the entry hole and gaining access to the nest. Bird boxes are also perfect for decorating if using water-based paints.

There are plenty of other designs if you search online, but taking it up a notch your child could design a bespoke bird box – fashioned on everything from Tudor houses to cats heads. Drafting up plans and templates, and the resulting woodwork, takes the whole project up a level or two.

Siting the bird box is important. The side of a house is fine, trees are OK but it’s important that squirrels and cats especially do not also have access. Ideally, they should also be facing north and east to protect them from the warmest sun and the prevailing winds.

Taking the project one step further, why not install a 'nest cam'? A decision that would need to be made from the start as birds don’t like any disturbance, particularly when nesting.

There are variations on this theme. A bird table rather than a bird box, for example. This will attract a wider variety of birds and other animals, which then provides more opportunities for further learning/investigation and is almost guaranteed avian visitors.

It is the sort of activity that works across the ages. Really young children could just sort the animals into sizes, colours, birds or mammals and count how many there are. Slightly older children could look each up online to find out their names, something about their behaviour, what they like to eat, what times of day they turn up. Nine or ten-year-olds might take this a bit further and put down different types of food to see if it makes any difference to which animals turn up. Or you might set up a camera overnight to see what turns up at night and get the children to scan the footage and find the animals.

Older children could investigate your environment and animal behaviour, try and predict what sort of animals might arrive, and teenagers could look into responsibility – are the birds kept safe from cats is an obvious one, but what if there are mammals like deer, hedgehogs, badgers or foxes, should they be encouraged if they needed to cross a busy road to get there?

By the time you get into older teenagers, they can start looking into wider issues, about how society does on a macro level what they are doing on a micro-level. So sonic fences to protect deer on roads, wetland restoration for water birds, how conservationists use tech to monitor animal behaviours in order to help the animals. It might even be a way to get these young adults to understand the link between animal welfare and our own welfare, which the coronavirus crisis is showing up.

Lockdown Challenge #2 – The engineer's cave

I’m going to be honest, I have my diseased son to thank for this.

Despite the slightly airy writing style on this article, it is intended as a diversion from the horrible circumstances we find ourselves in, with so many people sick and in danger. It in no way intends to diminish the severity of the situation or that these have been difficult and anxious times for many.

My son, the diseased one mentioned above, after a worrying few days thankfully only touched Covid-19 lightly and re-emerged blinking into the sunlight last weekend. Particularly in the last few days of his isolation, he manfully struggled to embrace his Xbox and basically lived the (or his) dream – food delivered on-demand, no work or chores, and unbroken Xbox/computer/TV entertainment.

This life appealed to him and he suggested as we sat in the garden that we knock down my shed, which contains useful garden things, and build what, in old money, he termed a 'man cave'. Given his gender, this is not an unreasonable name, but for our purposes, we will call it the 'engineer’s cave'. The purpose of the cave is, of course, to be a place where he can drink beer, play Xbox, watch TV, etc etc, but the actual activities are not so important. It can be a place where budding engineers can be engineers, or where they can do anything else they want to.

Lego house and and its inhabitants

If Lego minifigures can occupy themselves in the comfort of their own property, then so can you!

Image credit: Ekaterina79 | Dreamstime

Building and fitting out such a structure would be a Lockdown Challenge to end all others, but too ambitious for this household. Which is where Lego comes in.

The same son informed me he would like Lego’s Millennium Falcon from its ‘Star Wars’ collection for his forthcoming birthday. It retails at a tidy £650, which I find eyewatering. Moreover, it is an example of single-use plastics as far as I can see. I come from a generation in which Lego was the go-to creative toy, and see the modern building kits as slightly soulless and missing the point. It's great for dexterity, concentration, following instructions etc, but is it creative?

However, our Lego stash is massive, my own childhood collection being added to by the eroded remains of a Hogwarts Castle and countless lesser 'Star Wars' vehicles. An imaginative mind could do a lot with that.

So the Lockdown Challenge is to build an engineer’s cave – and fill it with whatever your child wants. Obviously the bigger the model, the more detail can be created. A table tennis table, tv or fridge might be easy, a full wall-sized fish tank (my son’s plan) less so, a lathe almost impossible – but those small pieces come in all shapes, so who knows what could be created.

As a parent, it’s almost impossible not to get sucked into such an exercise – maybe you need to do one in tandem which includes a place to store the lawnmower!

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