How hands-on learning fires up your brain

To strengthen your mind, work with your hands, says former astronaut Leland Melvin.

LELAND MELVIN: When I was a kid, my dad drove a $500 bread truck into our driveway and I thought we were going into the bread business. And he said, "No, this is our camper." I said, "I can read – it says Marita Bread and Rolls on the side of the truck." And over that summer we build bunk beds that flipped down, we made a sofa, we plumbed a propane tank into a Coleman stove, we rewired the entire truck. Over that summer I learned how to be an engineer and I was in middle school so it was experimental learning. And it wasn't until we painted the side of the truck that I realized we're going to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on vacation in this recreational vehicle. So experiential learning, whether it comes from home, school, wherever you get it, Boys and Girls Club, but we have to give kids meaningful things to do with their hands and give them problems that can help solve problems in their community or in the world and not just do make-work stuff. And I think when we let them build and create and it's meaningful and it helps them solve a problem, that gets them thinking about how they can be change makers themselves and how they can be scientists and engineers because that's what they're doing. They're thinking creatively and they're solving problems. And that's what we do as engineers and scientists. And so get them early building and creating things that are meaningful. Like I built a bread truck that saved the day for us. And we didn't have to spend it $24,000 on a Winnebago when we have a $500 bread truck that serves the same purpose – getting the family, in the cheapest way possible, to a destination so that the family can explore these new surroundings.

The intellectual side of learning and the physical side of learning how are they connected and what is that interplay? And I think Lego has done a really great job of teaching kids to play with these bigger Duplo blocks or the bigger blocks where they're trying to move them from one side of the body to the other side, because if you split the brain, as you're going across the brain, you are now making this physical space connection with both sides of your brain. And their play is intentional to have kids do that at a very early age. And so understanding how my body works, how I turn and twist and jump when I'm catching a pass has the same effect as me working hand controllers on the International Space Station, moving the $2 billion Columbus Laboratory out of the payload bay of the shuttle and attaching it to the space station. I have to know how to position my body in zero gravity where I'm not floating off and I'm going to put in the wrong hand controller motion that's going to slap the thing into the side of the space station and kill the project and maybe kill us. So body, mind, spatial reasoning, body spatial reasoning are all connected to solving problems. You have these foot straps you put your feet in that keep you from translating around, but still you have to react off the hand controllers just like you do off the foot straps. And I think understanding your body in space as well as on the ground helps you do these technical things that are challenging with your body.

  • Learning is a mental and physical pursuit, says retired astronaut Leland Melvin.
  • Recalling his childhood, Melvin explains how working with his dad to turn a $500 bread truck into a family RV camper ultimately made him a better astronaut, able to maneuver the $2-billion dollar Columbus Laboratory out of the payload bay of a shuttle and attach it to the International Space Station.
  • Experiential learning — like hands-on DIY, engineering kits, and Duplo games — wires your brain for problem solving from a young age. It's a leg-up we can all give to the children in our lives.
  • "[W]hen we let [kids] build and create and it's meaningful and it helps them solve a problem, that gets them thinking about how they can be change makers themselves and how they can be scientists and engineers," says Melvin.
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