It tumbled down a 20-degree incline, uncoiling with a trill, before settling at the bottom of the ramp. The instructor, bedecked in orange toy glasses and a colorful conductor’s cap, returned it to the top. With a prod, it tipped and spilled again and again.
The slinky, a creation of a Penn State alumnus, wended its way back to campus on Tuesday for a presentation that was part-math class, part-recess. For the about 30 students in the Penn State Outreach Building classroom, it was proof that toys needn’t be high-tech to be educational, even in 2017.
“What level did you teach?” One student asked the instructor, a former math teacher, with a chuckle. “I think I might have learned math if I had you.”
Bob Swaim laughed and juggled the wiry toy between his palms. He went on to explain the history of the famous trinket, which twists around a happy accident of engineering. Richard James, a mechanical engineer, happened upon the slinky after working on springs that could steady ship equipment while at sea. When he accidentally knocked a few samples off a shelf, he watched as it uncurled in even crests.
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He told his wife, Betty, and together they pursued the idea. After Christmas 1945, sales took off.
“It’s almost as old as me,” Swaim, 71, said.
Programs like Tuesday’s are prevalent across the country, with more than 150,000 people who participate in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. The organizations, which are associated with universities, are best known for hosting adult educational courses that reach individuals age 50 and older.
Penn State’s OLLI program, for instance, hosted Swaim’s presentation on the slinky. The institute offers courses on everything from the basics of recycling to understanding airport operations.
“The way to teach is visually,” Swaim said. “That’s what I’m trying to do with environmentally friendly toys.”
Like at other universities, the programs attract older individuals, often retired, who may be done with work, but are far from done with learning.
“It stimulates your imagination,” said Mary Lou Dubil, 68, who started attending OLLI courses after retiring in 2013. “They run the gamut from the very intellectual to the entertaining.”
Swaim fell in love with the toy about five years ago at a toy show in New York. An enthusiast of non-electronic toys, he attends the show each year. During the class, he juggled, rode a tiny toy bike and demonstrated other doodads from the toy-industry canon.
On Tuesday, besides a history lesson, he also went back to his roots. At one point, he demonstrated how the slinky, which was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2000, could illustrate concepts such as wave theory, friction and momentum. In order to be inducted, Swaim said, the toy must have educational value.
Coupled with the slinky’s Penn State ties, Swaim has been working with state representatives to get it named the state toy. For a simple coil of wire, he said, it invites wonder — the same feeling James felt generations ago.
“Mathematicians,” Swaim said, “they just love discovering stuff.”
The same could be said for Tuesday’s class. No matter one’s age, Dubil said, it’s never too late to learn something new.
“It’s important just to keep your mind active,” she said. “And, hopefully, to stay young at heart.”