Chain reaction

Hugh Phear creates hands-on, science-related programs for kids.


Creative juices were overflowing in Hugh Phear’s Chain Reaction Building Activity at the West Tisbury library a couple of weeks ago. Phear is a font of ingenuity, and he ignited that same sense of imagination and exploration with the middle-school aged kids at the library. “They’re at the age where they know a lot and know there is a lot more to know,” he said.

Children, alone or paired with friends or siblings, gathered around individual stations, each with a tabletop-size “catapult” outfitted with ping-pong balls and a smorgasbord of materials. The challenge was to create some kind of contraption that would set off the catapult using what was at hand — balls and chutes, tubes, motors, switches, rubber bands, buckets, netting, and springs.

The kids hooked up all sorts of apparatus so that when it fell, it would, in various inventive ways, trigger the pulling of the catapult’s string — and voilà, the ping-pong ball was in the air. Some participants quickly began to integrate other challenges such as remotely activating the catapult with some sort of an electric motor they rigged up with batteries, conductive metal materials, and connecting wires with clips to create a closed circuit.

“Chain reactions are great for reintroducing a playful component to learning,” Phear said. “Curiosity, discovery, imagination, and analysis are shared traits of play as well as design and engineering. One of the defining aspects of learning is that we are developing a new way to respond to, interact with, or understand something. Whether we are familiar with the subject or completely ignorant, when learning, we are engaged in a process of discovery and analysis.”

Phear is no novice facilitating this activity. 

“I ran a learning space at the MIT Museum called the Idea Hub. Chain reactions were one of the more popular weekly activities I ran there,” he said. “All ages would participate, and many would create really innovative contraptions. Because nothing is being used in a way it was intended, the assumptions about what is a success or failure breakdown. Real exploration can then blossom, fostering problem solving through experimentation and testing.”

Phear worked as a high school teacher in Kenya, and years ago with Mary Payne in a program on-Island called Arts After School. More recently he was the education coordinator at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival and has been involved with SteamMV. 

The whirl of brain power in the room was tangible and Phear “led from behind,” asking questions and posing “What ifs,” but never telling anyone directly how to solve a problem. This process of inquiry is the basis of Phear’s approach. “Play is an excellent format for learning,” he says. “This is one of the reasons why we spend so much of our early years — when there is so much to learn — engaged in play. This is what a baby is doing when it is gumming a block or dropping food on the floor. It is exploring the qualities of the world around it but also creating categories, expectations, and defining boundaries.”

When the children build a chain reaction contraption, they create the possibility of returning to that playful explorative and discovering mind, he explained. “We can reexamine our assumptions about what, for example, a ‘chair’ is. We can explore attributes other than it being a seat. Can it be a lever, a spinning top, or a cascading domino?”


Laura Hearn, the library’s youth services/young adult librarian, said that Phear leads the children to resolve problems themselves. “Hugh is a highly intelligent and motivated teacher. He will ask a student a question and help guide them to discover the answer on their own,” Hearn said. “Problem solving along the way. His programs are all hands-on and involve creativity and problem-solving. Hugh encourages any and all learning. He is a gift to the community.”

Because kids of all ages are welcome, you can come try it yourself, with or without a child, at one or both of Phear’s upcoming programs on Friday, March 13, and Friday, March 27, both at 

3 pm, at the West Tisbury library. All you need is an adventurous spirit and an open mind.


  1. Hugh, you’re the best. Great project!
    I assume that Hugh would agree that teaching kids the idea of how a chain reaction works is beneficially similar to the benefits of teaching kids how to play chess. If a child moves this piece, then this, this, and this will happen. If a child moves that piece, then that, that, and that will happen. These learning methods teach kids how to understand the consequences of their actions and decisions. Some adults could benefit as well, right?

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