Philadelphia-based fourth grade science teacher Michael Carroll just finished writing his first novel about a 12-year-old kid detective named Dewey Mac, who loves science and making, titled Dewey Mac, Kid Detective and Inventor. Aimed at third through sixth graders, the book chronicles the tales of Dewey and his friend Ched, who start a detective agency and solve various capers. Along the way Dewey makes different gadgets to help himself get out of jams, similar to MacGuyver. Carroll is currently working on the Awesome Kid Agency Detective Manual , which will be a supplement to his book and will feature instructions on how readers can make their own spy gadgets.
This year at World Maker Faire New York, Carroll showed 30 different gadgets from the AKA Detective Manual, including the WMAC (a foxhole radio), the Interrogator 3000 (a lie detector), the lasEAR (a laser pointer voice communicator), Mecret Sessages, (reading and writing in codes), Sister Catcher 2.0 (a room alarm), and the Tooter Cushion (a whoopee cushion). He also launched a Kickstarter campaign for the book and has hit his goal with two days to go. His 433 supporters show that there’s a need for this type of literature.
We chatted with him to find out more about the project.
1. What’s the basic premise behind your book? Dewey “Mac” McClane and his friend Ched are looking for a little adventure in their town when, on a field trip, they find out that the mayor’s dog has been stolen. Dewey uses his paper route to snoop around and find a few suspects. To learn exactly what happened, and deal with life as a kid, Dewey builds different spy gadgets out of common and inexpensive items. The more he finds out, the less he realizes he knows about his town and this case.
2. What inspired you to tell this tale? I’ve been an avid fan of all things MAKE for a number of years now; I was hooked after my first cigar box guitar. There is a lot of rich, meaningful learning that happens when you take some wood, a cigar box, and some string and make them into something new. It’s enchanting. My book has two goals: first to entertain, and second, to have kids discover the world of making. The idea that you can change the purpose of an object is very powerful at a young age; the world becomes full of options.
In Ed Vogel’s article on making a cigar box guitar, he talked about using a piezo buzzer as an acoustic pickup. I started to play around with piezo buzzers and realized you can listen through glass with them. Presented as a spy microphone, I knew kids would love to play (and learn) about piezo buzzers and more.
3. How has your job as a fourth grade teacher contributed to the story you’re telling? My passion as a teenager was filmmaking; I always wanted to tell enchanting stories. As I grew older I realized that teaching scratched that same itch. I approach each lesson as if it is a story waiting to unfold and I plan how I want to tell it. This new venture has been an enjoyable blend of my passions: storytelling, teaching, and making.
Over the years I have discovered that all kids truly love to learn, even the ones that struggle in the classroom. Having STEM learning buried in fun, simple inventions that have an application and are part of a story piques kids’ curiosities and helps them discover a lifelong love of making.
4. How do you bring making and discovery into your own classroom? Discovery is an integral part of how I teach. Nobody likes to be told to adopt another’s idea, but everyone loves to discover new information. Leading children on a journey of discovery is why I became a teacher, and why I wrote this book.
As a classroom teacher, it is challenging to find time to teach anything outside the prescribed curriculum during school. I’ve had to do this during after-school and recess clubs. Even though this is on the students’ time, they happily surrender it for more learning.
Another issue is finding projects that are cheap and at the right challenge level for the age group you’re working with. Soldering components with 25 fourth graders sounds like a nightmare to me! Many of the gadgets in my book have been successfully used in a classroom. The parts are cheap, readily accessible, and easily purchased in bulk. Watching a child’s smile when they connect a battery to their lie detector or room alarm and hear it chirp is unbelievably rewarding!
5. What do you hope to accomplish through telling Dewey Mac’s tale? My first goal was to write a fun and entertaining story. Next, I wanted my story to increase early exposure to STEM skills. There are many statistics that show that STEM jobs currently go unfilled as the field grows at a rapid rate. Early exposure will give kids a great STEM background if they choose to continue in those fields.
6. On your site you say, “When I was a kid, we would make our fun, not buy it.” Can you expand on that? Many of the memories that are the strongest from my childhood involve making. I can vividly picture the birdhouse I made with my father and remember going through bags of potatoes launching them into a pond by my house with my cousins. When I was in the fifth grade, we moved to one of the first houses in a new development. I spent a lot of time taking scraps from the dumpsters of half-built houses and making tree houses, toys, and skating ramps. Now that I’m older, I realize all of the different things I could have made, if I had known some basics of making. The book is really written for the 12-year-old version of me. I would have loved it, but then again, I’m biased.
Here’s Dewey Mac’s video on how to make a lie detector:
Here’s an excerpt from the book to give you a taste of the style:
Chapter 1: Caught in a Trap
There are times in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. You try everything: counting sheep, picking your favorite toe, and counting back from 173,836,927. But nothing works. I was a victim of many sleepless nights until I found something that calms the beast inside me: ham. That’s right, ham. Any type will do: smoked, cubed, chopped, steak, bone-in, boneless, fried, sliced, rolled, aged, cured, or canned.
This particular night, my love of ham brought me to the kitchen in hopes of a sleepy-time snack. Nothing, not even ham, could have prepared me for what I saw once I flicked the light switch. On the counter stood my mother, crouched with a feverish look in her eyes. Her wiry hair moved with every long, deep breath. In her hand was a rolled up magazine. I think it was Today’s Mothering.
“Dewey, stop right there and be very quiet,” said my mom. She did it in one of those loud whispers that people use to talk across a room.
I didn’t dare move. My mom broke the silence and said, “He’s under the T-A-B-L-E.”
When my mom spelled the word “table” it made me think she was talking about my four-year-old brother Chuck, but when I bent down to see what was under there I saw a small tan mouse with a single brown spot under an eye and pink ears that looks like frisbees. It nibbled a Skittle and didn’t look the least bit scared, or even notice anyone—especially the lunatic on the counter.
“Why did you spell table, mom? It’s a mouse. They don’t understand English.”
With a loud whisper she said, “Dewey, SHHHHHH! This little mouse just made a big mouse-take.”
I apologize in advance for my parents’ horrible jokes, puns, and stories. They are never funny.
She continued, “That scurrying fur ball keeps eatin’ all of our food. I can’t afford to have it eating everything in our closet. Remember those dried prunes I was able to buy for only twenty-five cents with my coupons?” I didn’t answer. She continued, “Well, that thing ate a hole right through the bag and ate ’em all. That was a once in a lifetime deal. Not to mention I haven’t been regular since then.”
That lady loves her coupons. She really does, probably more than me. About five years ago, right before Chuck was born, she started “Holi-days later.” This is where we celebrate every holiday a week late. Her idea is that after a holiday, all of the items you buy to celebrate it go on clearance sale. My mom did this just so we can save a few bucks on candy hearts, turkeys, and fireworks. Thanksgiving is always early December, the Fourth of July is on July 11th, and New Year’s Eve is, well you get it. Of course Mother’s Day is still celebrated on its actual date.
We watched in silence as the mouse ate. I guess it would be more accurate to say I watched, my mother waited. She squeezed her magazine. I could tell she wanted to play Whac-A-Mouse. A sound came from the hallway, and then my brother Chuck walked in. My mom tried to give signals to Chuck to be quiet. They didn’t work. He said, “Look at mousey, mommy.”
Mr. Mouse looked up and saw what I can only imagine was the scariest thing it had ever seen, my crazy mother. It hit the brakes as my mom jumped down from the counter. “I got you, mousey.” My mother stood between the mouse and its freedom. She smiled with winning excitement, but then the mouse did a u-turn and ran away from my mom, and his hole. The expression on her face changed. She dove at the mouse, but missed with a loud thud and slid under the table. With my mom stuck on the floor, the mouse looped back around and reached did another u-turn and ran around her toward its home.
Franklin, my dog, poked his head around the corner to see what all the noise was. My mother tried to get to her feet, but couldn’t quickly enough. “Franklin, sic ’em boy.”
Franklin turned his head slowly sideways. He did nothing else.
The mouse jumped over a mousetrap and reached freedom. I was impressed.
My mother slammed her fist against the floor. Chuck said, “Look, mousey made mommy maddy.”
“I know what I need,” said my mom. “Dewey, let me borrow your BB gun. I’ll buy a hundred more mousetraps, set them up everywhere on the floor. Then I’ll sit quietly with your BB gun. I’m goin’ mouse huntin’, ya’all. Oh, let me see if I have a coupon for mousetraps.”
This mouse was special. It didn’t fall for easy tricks and traps. I didn’t want it to meet its maker, especially if its maker was going to be my fanatical mother.
I grabbed some mail from the table and triggered the mousetrap by the mouse hole. The metal bar came down across a thin cheese slice placed on top of a cheap decal of a cartoon mouse with Xs for eyes and the words “Mouse Killer 3000” written across the bottom.
My mother panted, paced, and said, “Every morning I find the traps sprung and no cheese. He’s making a fool of me.”
The trap was way too sensitive and this mouse must have learned how to trigger it without being caught. He’s smart and doesn’t deserve death. That being said he doesn’t deserve making our food closet into an all-you-can-eat buffet.
I stood up straight and said, “I can catch the mouse.”
“You really think you can?”
I smiled. “Without a doubt I can make a better trap. No problemo.”
All of a sudden the room turned dark, lightning exploded from the ceiling, and thunder billowed as my sister Janice came into the kitchen. (Ok, maybe some of that was made up.) She started, “Oh really, you think you can catch the mouse? What, with one of your crazy and dangerous inventions? Don’t burn the place down, or ruin Dad’s stereo again.”
“That was a long time ago,” I said. “Longer than when you left your curling iron on.”
Janice ignored me once she heard her text tone go off. Who is texting her at midnight?
After her thumb danced over her phone she replied, “Whatevs, I need my beauty sleep. Mom, try and make sure Dewey doesn’t wreck the place. Laters.”
Beauty sleep? She’ll have to wake up next decade to see any results.
Janice spun half-way around on one foot and used the other to stop. She left the room while humming a perfectly annoying song.
As long as I can remember, I have loved science and building things—or making. The reason is very simple: “Ranger Danger”—the action-packed TV show on Sunday nights. You know it, right? The opening credits call the good ranger, “a one-man wrecking crew for terrorists, ne’re do wells, derelicts, hoods, and hooligans.” I’ll tell you more about him later, but ever since I watched my first episode three years ago, I have wanted to be able to make gadgets just like Ranger John Danger does in each episode. I’ve enjoyed science class more ever since and even won last year’s Science Fair with a solar cell phone charger that I added to my book bag. It was pretty easy to make out of a few parts from the dollar store.
[You will learn how to make this in the AKA Detective Manual.]
After some thought, I placed a shoebox up-side-down and cut two squares out on each side. I taped the cut-out pieces back in place. This way they became like a swinging door. On the inside I taped a straw that was wider than the door, so it only opens inward. I added a cardboard toilet paper tube as a chimney. On the side I wrote, “Cheese Factory: Mice Welcome.” This will keep the mouse trapped.
With a spoon I dug out a clump of Christo Chunky Peanut Butter and let it drop on the linoleum floor with a thump. This will attract the mouse, hopefully. It was hard to see the peanut butter since our kitchen floor was the same color. I placed my mousetrap on top and aligned it with the fake tile pattern.