This Works!

The Finns woke up one day in 2007 to discover, much to their collective surprise, that they led the rest of the world in education. When they embarked on education reform some 40 years earlier, they hadn’t set out to beat anyone in that arena but only to improve the educational opportunities for Finnish children. However, by emphasizing equitable access to a high quality education for all children regardless of either their socio economic circumstances or their inherent capacity and by fostering collaboration in schools and in teacher preparation, they wound up outscoring everyone else on the PISA and other measures of student achievement — all of this without going the route of incessant standardized tests and an obsessive focus on student achievement in a narrow range of subjects. By the way, teaching is a highly sought after profession in Finland thanks to the vision the Finns had for their schools.

As a result of that vision and their singleminded pursuit of it, education has become Finland’s oil, a new natural resource that they are exporting to other countries. And we can learn a lot from the Finns.

In this blog over the past years I’ve reflected several times on how we Americans do Science Fairs. If you’ve read any of those entries, you know that I’m not entirely thrilled by the way ours are constituted, although I do see potential in having children conduct scientific investigations and meet engineering challenges, presenting their results to their peers and to knowledgeable adults who can both positively reinforce their efforts and stimulate further thinking by the child scientists and engineers.

So when I was in Finland week before last, I was delighted to encounter a student science fair of sorts, Tämä toimii!, at Tampere University of Applied Sciences in Hervanta, Finland. Tampere is Finland’s second largest university in engineering sciences, and its statutory duty is to pursue research and give the best possible education in its field. Tuition is free to students from Finland and other EU countries. Let me repeat that. Finnish students receive a world class education in engineering without incurring any student debt. That day, Tampere University was playing host to children from local schools who were sharing their work with judges.

Translated: This Works!

Translated: Hey, brought the toy moves (moving toy?)! This Works!

As with other aspects of Finnish education, there are some things we can learn from Tämä toimii!, which means “This Works!”

Tämä toimii! is an annual competition (since 2013) for children grades 4-6, so around 10 years of age, to design a toy with moving parts. In the fall, schools register their desire to participate and by November receive confirmation and the schedule of spring events. In early December, participating schools receive a list of approved materials, so that they can begin gathering them from around the school and from children’s homes. Finland places a strong emphasis on recycling and has for years, so most of the materials the children will be using for their toy inventions are materials that they are repurposing or recycling. The children keep a diary of their work, and their final product is a toy that will be judged for its success in movement over repeated tries, its delight as a plaything for children, and its inventive use of recycled materials. They must also produce an ad for their toy and demonstrate the toy to various groups —from other children to adult judges.

Presented to spark your creativity, here is a list of suggested materials from the 2016 competition:

Permitted building:
A disc (e.g. wood, metal, plastic), max. 50cm x 50cm x 1cm
Cocktail, dental or barbecue sticks
Juice whistles
CD discs
A tube (e.g. Pringles)
Plastic pipe, max. ⌀ 2cm
Beverage cans / plastic water bottle
Plastic box / jar (e.g. Margarine tubs) and a plastic cover
Clay (also hardening modeling clay)
Craft Beads (all types)
Egg carton (max. 12 egg cell)
Fabric (e.g. A blanket, cotton, oilcloth etc.)
Carto, max. 50cm x50cm x50 cm; paperboard, max. 100cm x100cm; copy paper
Rope or fishing line
Screws (all types / all sizes)
Nails (all types / all sizes)
Rubber loops or equivalent (e.g. Hair elastics)
Clothes pegs
Ballpoint pens
Empty pump soap bottle or equivalent
Ball (glass / metal / plastic)
Plastic test tube
Magnet (diagonal / diameter max. 3cm)
Light bulbs or LEDs
Connection conductor / winding wire
A recycled solar cell

However, some of the materials may also be purchased.

Children begin their work in January and by March they are presenting in regional events, leading up to the finals.

Spend a few minutes watching some of this video from 2014, and you’ll get the idea … and as you do, think about the science fairs you’ve attended.

To help you visualize further, here are some photos I took of the groups of students with their toy creations who were presenting that day at Tampere University.

Students being interviewed by media, by judges, and (in English) by my colleague Rozy Patel.

Students being interviewed by media, by judges, and (in English) by my colleague Rozy Patel.


The Genius of Children with Everyday Recyclables ... Note the Houseboat Which Moves in Water ... Inside the Table is Set.

The genius of children with recyclables. Note the houseboat in the top half — it moves in the tub of water and inside it the table is set.

I know I haven’t captured all of the details of this program, my Finnish being nonexistent and Google translator having its limits, but several things struck me that day that were distinctly different from what I’ve observed judging science fairs in the U.S., six to be precise, and I think they could give us some things to think about in considering how to improve our science fairs.

  1. Rather than one or two student limits on a project, This Works! requires that 4 children collaborate. If a class doesn’t divide evenly into groups of 4, a group of 3 or 5 is allowed.
  2. Each group must include both boys and girls; they are equal partners in the work.
  3. By definition, each project is a STEAM project because the design of the toys, the color choices, the decorative elements, and the required ad for the toy all demand attention to design and artistic expression.
  4. There are none of those ubiquitous and boring boards … sorry Staples … and no evidence of a formula the children must follow in presenting their toy to the judges.
  5. Most of the materials are repurposed or recycled, encouraging children to be imaginative about things that would otherwise likely be discarded. This also levels the playing field because parental income doesn’t matter at all in the outcome of the finished product. It also fosters and participates in the strong eco-minded culture of Finland, something we could certainly improve on.
  6. Creating toys clearly matters to children. A program like this respects children’s innate desire to play and the fact that they learn through play. This is a powerful real world connection that most American science fair entries I’ve seen simply don’t have.

And the icing on the cake for me was that the children were able to respond to my questions in English and present their toy in English as well as in their native Finnish. I know you can’t tell this from the video and pictures, but I saw it with my own eyes. How many American students could do the same? These children are ready for the 21st century and for contributing the products of their imaginations to their own society and to the global economy. Even the name of this program builds confidence in children … “this works!” There’s a sense of exaltation in that phrase!

Until next time, Hyvää kevättä! (Happy Spring!)

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.


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Filed under children as engineers, creativity, engineering, Finland, Finnish education, science fair, STEAM, STEM education, Uncategorized

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