At play in the fields of the mind

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By Roger Snodgrass

His work, a colleague said, encourages people to touch, explore, think and imagine. He brought a toy to his job interview.

“A work in progress,” Gordon McDonough called the toy, the kind of progress that seldom rests because the concept is about play, which is interactive and implies that something is in motion.

One of his “toys,” that he keeps on his desk is a Rube Goldberg contraption, which uses the force of gravity to draw a metal sphere down a roller coaster of wire tracks to a place where it obligingly trips the release of the next ball. Along the way, it flips a mechanical switch so that the next ball amusingly takes another route.

McDonough has about five of these kinds of projects at any given moment, gestating on a table at home in Santa Fe.

“Maybe three have any potential of being finished in the next six months,” he said.”

Given his background, experience as a father with two daughters, a science teacher and maker of interactive learning stations, there is little wonder that McDonough got the job as one of the Bradbury Science Museum’s educational and outreach educators.

For about three years he has been teaching youngsters from inside out, as part of the Museum on Wheels program that goes out to regional schools and from inside in as a tour guide for visiting students.

He got into public instruction because friends told him he should take his playful creations to the Boston Children’s Museum.

Many roads and a many jobs later, including piano mover and commercial fisherman, with art as a steady beacon, he wangled his way into the Santa Fe Children’s museum as a volunteer and then as the craftsman who made half the original demonstrations.

That led eventually to adding a degree in education to his degree in art and “going legit” as a science teacher for several years in middle, elementary and alternative schools.

“Laughter is a big part of my program, distracting students from the whole idea that I’m a teacher or an authority figure,” he said.

All that talent and experience has now been tapped by the museum to sprinkle a little more fun over the exhibits. McDonough is one of the drivers behind the current exhibit, “Science in Motion,” now featured in the Bradbury’s TechLab.

The exhibit is all about simple machines – gears, pulleys, levers and pendulums.

McDonough made and designed the signature piece, a wooden clockworks and describes it like this: “A weight on a pulley is connected by a ratchet to a large gear which turns a smaller gear that turns an escapement which is regulated by a pendulum that rocks back and forth and is moved by the escapement.”

The piece, a faceless clock that seems to be pulling itself up by its bootstraps, knits together many of the physical concepts inherent in other tools and toys in the room.

On one table there is a pile of household and kitchen gadgets – a garlic press, hair clips and a nutcracker, each with their fulcrums marked by a red dot, the point where the energy is transferred.

A triple-beam balance tests experimenters’ abilities to measure the mass of various objects, compared to what the curators say it weighs. A gear table with larger and smaller gears showing different numbers of teeth expresses the variable relationship between force and speed.

“Simple machines change the amount of force or its direction,” McDonough said, summing up the lessons in the room.

TechLab is a “multigenerational” or “family friendly” space, McDonough said, where kids can entertain themselves while their parents are off learning about Fat Man and plutonium, and parents can also find a few puzzles they didn’t know were puzzling until they’re asked to explain them to the children.

While some of the work at the laboratory may seem too technical to grasp, these are things that happen to have a lot to do with fundamental concepts in practice at the lab that are also within most people’s ordinary experience.

Coming up next, McDonough will be leading workshops for designing whirligigs and mobiles, which will be on exhibit during "The Next Big Idea" on July 19, a community-wide event on creativity and invention sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce.