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Smartest People I Know

July 15, 2011

The other day a technician was installing the satellite dish for my downstairs neighbor’s but he couldn’t get a signal.  So my neighbor asked if he could put the dish outside my balcony.  Of course, I said.  I watched the technician climb up the outside of the building (I offered to let him use my door after that), balance himself while he drilled-in the lag screws nice and perpendicular to the post, checked for level in 2 directions with a bubble level, made fine adjustments and re-checked for level, checked the satellites’ signal strength, torqued down the adjustment screws, made the electrical connections, looped the cable at a minimum radius for strain relief and future adjustments, and stapled-down the coaxial cable.  A few things came to mind: 1) there are some definite math and science skills required here.  2) how much of this did he learn in school?  3) I wonder if he can get the World Cup matches?

1) and 2) are interesting for this blog entry, however.  I got to thinking about the “smartest” people I knew.  I’m not immediately sure how I define “smartest,” but some of the people who came to mind were carpenters, mechanics, and machine shop technicians.  All these people have to be quick, creative problem-solvers.  And all of them work with their hands and implement fixes so simple it makes me smack my forehead because I  didn’t think of it.  It also speaks to the issue of hands-on work having elegance and dignity.  (Check out Matthew Crawford’s book.)

As a student of physics, I could define torque and how to calculate it.  But it took my father to show me how to hook two combination wrenches together to increase the torque to remove a stubborn bolt.  (My dad, the oldest of 12 kids, had to quit school after 10th grade to go to work.)

I wish I could have a classroom in which students got to build things with their hands, try to solve real problems, wrestle with failure, and experience the fist-pumping satisfaction when they figure it out.

I can feel it in my bones that this is the right approach.  But how do I do this with 20+ kids in each class?  How do I budget for the upcoming year?  How do I convince parents who are paying to prep their kids for a good college?  (Indeed, how would colleges value this work?)  And can I even attempt this in my IB classes, which have a very specific curriculum and are very time-pressed?

 

One day I hope I will have a clear vision about teaching physics.  Right now it’s like I have to step off the cliff and learn to fly on the way down.

 

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From → Thoughts & Ideas

2 Comments
  1. Shop Class as Soul Craft is one of my favorite books, and I’ve struggled with the same question as you. Right now, I think too much of this type of thinking gets diverted to extracurriculars like robotics. It would be great to find a way to bring these topics back into the curriculum.

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