Wizard of recycling lures kids to science
At the Mama Tierra workshop in Mexico City, a kid's wistful 'I want a remote-control boat' is a plan, not a dream.
As a child, Carlos Macias made a hobby out of inventing his own toys. A self-described bookworm, he quickly exhausted the family supply of books and became something of a young scientist.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"I preferred [inventing] to playing or swimming," he says of a childhood full of the explosions, splatters, and sparks of invention.
On one family outing to a city park, the young boy decided that he wanted to catch bugs in a murky pond. After finding a stick, a piece of string, and a plastic bag, he made his own fishing rod. Seeing him using the new invention, some other children came over and asked to buy it. When the young inventor offered instead to show them how to make it, they insisted he sell it to them, but, Macias refused, saying they should make it themselves.
While his ethic hasn't made him rich, it has made him a minor celebrity among kids who consider him a modern-day wizard.
Mama Tierra, the science workshop he founded in 1992, helps make dreams come true. The wistful "I want to make a remote-control boat with passengers and a moving radar detector" becomes a plan, not a wish.
His mission is twofold: To introduce kids of all ages to recycling and environmental technologies like solar energy and to teach them to experience creativity firsthand, to reach for solutions rather than expect easy answers.
If a child can describe it, Macias usually can help bring an idea to reality from his cluttered jumble of cables, tools, and dusty model boats and spaceships. He'll discuss an idea with a child until they come up with a plan for construction.
One little girl who wants to make a mechanical caterpillar is given egg containers to get started, and Macias checks in periodically on her progress.
Kids work on picnic tables under a white tent outside the workshop, developing their inventions while they chat and laugh with their friends.
Many of the gadgets that young inventors make at Mama Tierra yield ecological lessons – from toys with recycled parts to machines that run on renewable energy. "We try to encourage energies that don't pollute, that are recyclable, that are renewable, so that the kids will see that they are options," Macias says.
In addition to letting kids follow their imaginations, he offers classes on ecological technologies that are easy to put into practice, like solar ovens and water heaters, both of which can be made using recycled materials.
Just after lunch on a recent weekday, two high school girls stop by, saying that they need to make a model of the effects of acid rain.
"Would you like to start it now, as if it were a model of a city? We'll make factories that are spewing out dust," he says, after consulting them on their time frame. But the girls say they need to highlight the consequences of acid rain. "We could put in a river, we can put in an ocean – we can even put in the houses, the trees, the birds," he answers.
As the girls decide what to do, Macias says the project is probably for a class on environmental education. He'll help the students make a model that will attract the attention of their classmates with moving parts or flashing lights, or even falling water, and that will highlight a solution to the problem of acid rain.
"At times the solution is right there," he says.
Some of his work is more complicated. One challenge for more advanced students is making a hydrogen engine, which to Macias is a perfect way to combine science education and environmental consciousness. "It's one of the most abundant elements in the universe, so what could be better than developing this type of energy?" he says.
Some projects he won't do: a model of a nuclear plant, for instance, which he feels would promote a dangerous type of energy. Others, like a remote-control submarine, require too much time and concentration for the modern child. "I've realized that for this generation of children, everything needs to be faster. They don't have the patience to do things kids did 30 or 40 years ago," he observes.