MHA Grapevine Newsletter Artical
“The Jitterbug”

It all began a year ago when Jacob, My eleven year old, fell in love with the jitterbug.

No, it’s not a dance. It’s a Cuboctahedron--- a three dimensional model of a geometric shape that has the flexibility to bend and twist into inumerable other shapes.

Jacob didn’t forget about it. He kept pestering me to find out how to make the jitterbug.

Fortunately, I ran into Gray and his father,Charles, at last fall’s Minnesota Homeschooling Alliances's (MHA) conference and so I stopped by to chat with them and found out I had stumbled onto something even richer in eduational value than I realized.

"Hands-on-Math", as this father/son team has called their enterprise, is a program that began as the Center for Applied Geometry in Boulder, Colorado in September, 1994. Housed in the prototype "Fly's Eye Dome" designed by R. Buckminster Fuller, the program is based on the research and ideas of Fuller, called by some "The Leonardo Da Vinci of our times".

Charles Gronberg, (son of the inventor of that favorite of childhood snacks, the Bugle Chip), is an engineer and inventor himself, who, with his son, Gray, is currently developing an internet version of "Hands-on Math".  He has a passionate commitment to bringing Buckminster Fuller’s revolutionary ideas into the hands of our youngest generation of future architects and engineers, our children. We got to know Gray and Charles and their work through a series of four inexpensive workshops held in the homes of a group of  homeschooling families.

The children, ranging in age from my youngest, Josh, 7, up to my oldest, Jacob, 11, built their own models of the jitterbug from inexpensive items such as bamboo skewers, rubber tubing, paper, tape and fishing lines, all items included in the "Hands-on-Math" kit.  We advanced from the construction of a tetrahedron, to constructing geometric models of horses, and to finally constructing something called a "tensegrity".

While children were busily constructing their complex and colorful geometric designs, adults were absorbing as much of the theory of three-dimensional geometry as possible, attempting to learn words such as octahedron and icosahedron, discussing the molecular structure of DNA, and  talking over Bucky Fuller’s ideas for creating giant, light weight environments that could float over the ocean and hold entire cities.

I have personally been aware of some of Buckminster Fuller’s ideas for about the past twenty years, work based on his early, life-long mission to explore and find ways to solve global problems of co-existence. One quote I picked up from a video I recently viewed of his work seems particularly appropriate to the homeschooling movement. "It is never the human that needs changing. It is the environment in which he[she] lives." He also believed that all children were born with a capacity for genius that is often suppressed by the circumstances of life.

In his efforts to discover a means to solving world problems he invented the geodesic dome (like the one at Epcot Center in Disneyworld). Turning the world of architecture on its head, he theorized and created buildings based on triangular structures, rather than the traditional rectangular structures that are not really weight-bearing structures at all. His triangular buildings actually weigh less and take less materials and energy to build and maintain.

At the heart of his work is his idea that most of humanity's working theories were developed around the time when we still believed the earth was flat. Consequently, our geometric models of the universe are all developed around a 90 degree co-ordinate system. Bucky, in exploring nature, discovered that the 60 degree angle is in all of nature. Thus his models are all built around a 60 degree co-ordinate system.

Another key idea is exemplified in the "tensegrity model", based on the notion that compression and tension exists simultaneouly in all systems and is a powerful and stabablizing force that can be utilized effectively in building light-weight construction. It is essentially what holds the planets in orbit.

Studying Hands-on-Math has exposd our family once again to the revolutionary ideals of Buckminster Fuller.

"Much of conventional geometry is fallacious," says Charles Gronberg, "all based on the 90 degree co-ordinate system."

Hands-on-Math gives the young scholar an opportunity to play with and examine another approach to understanding the geometric constructions of the world. It also gave my sons an opportunity to think in terms of 3-D construction, an important skill not taught  in the schools.

Another aspect of Hands-On-Math I, as an artist, enjoyed is the art of the model-building process. The struts used in the models are covered with colorful tape of the children’s own choosing. The model building is all their own with the highly-individualistic colors and patterns that speak of and to each individual child. Constructing models of animals with 3-D shapes, angles, and lines is a powerful practice for developing beginning drawing skills.

Probably most important to me are the ideals of Buckminster Fuller that have inspired Charles and Gray. Bucky believed in the possibility of having a world that worked for everyone. He felt that with our breakthroughs in science and technology, we have what we need to solve the problems of our "spaceship earth." He proved that he could construct environments that would solve issues of over-consumption of energy, death through starvation, and over-population. Many of his ideas have been tested and proven to be practical and applicable.

By exposing my children to his geometric constructions, they also became familiar with the ideals of a man who was committed to making a difference in the world. It is a natural and easy relationship for my sons, who love constructing things and who also care deeply about the environment. Up to this point, they have been limited to prefabricated construction toys, such as legos and k’nex. With the "Hands-on-Math" materials that the Gronbergs have designed, Jacob and Josh have the added satisfaction of designing the actual units for construction, bringing their personal flair to what they are making. While it requires a fair amount of time and energy,  it is a tiny fraction of the cost of the ready-made construction kits, with the added value of bringing the child’s aesthetic sensibilities into play as well.

Finally, and most importantly of all, are Charles and Gray themselves. Their passion and commitment to the ideals of "Hands-on-Math" is contagious. I would recommend contacting them directly and arranging in-home workshops for a small group of families. The workshops do more than just supplement their kit and web-site. They actually introduce you to two inspired entrepeneurs who are wonderful role-models for our children and really bring alive math and geometry. 

This  is the kind of work that involves the whole family in examining and rethinking some of the old ideas of geometry and architecture and opens a door to a whole new world.
By Mary Alterman,
MHA Homeschool Mother

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