Yesterday I was invited to be one of several judges at a middle school history fair. It turned out to be eight times more enjoyable than I expected, partly on the strength of the turkey sandwich they fed me, but mostly due to the quality of the presentations and my impression that the kiddies truly enjoyed their research.
One of the exhibits resembled an iPhone. The app icons opened like doors to reveal quotes and anecdotes about Apple. It was clever. And I learned a lot from it, too. I learned that Steve Jobs invented the very first personal computer. I also learned that until the Apple II, computers took up entire rooms and you couldn’t even play games on them. Then another group member mercifully cut the speaker off and corrected the timeline. I wistfully hoped they’d find a way to work the C64 or TI-99/4a into the conversation, but no such luck.
Another exhibit involved the Berlin Wall. Apparently, when the Wall came down, they made some West Berliners move to East Berlin “so both sides would be even and fair.” I also learned that– well, let’s just go to the transcript:
VDV: So who built the Berlin Wall?
Student [looking at presentation board]: Mikhail Gorbachev.
VDV: No, no, who built the Berlin Wall?
Student [with absolute confidence]: Mikhail Gorbachev.
VDV: Are you sure?
VDV: Gorbachev built the Berlin Wall?
VDV: You’re sure you’re sure?
Student [less confident, double-checking the board]: …Yes.
VDV: Do you get why I keep asking you if you’re sure?
Student [the light dawns on him]: Yes.
VDV: So who built the Berlin Wall?
Student [smiling]: Gorbachev!
I tried. The kid had guts, I’ll give him that.
The Gorbachev kid reminded me of one of my high school science projects. It involved calculating the mechanical advantage of different bicycle gears on a 10-speed. I can’t remember what exactly I was measuring and/or calculating; I think it was mechanical advantage, so for the sake of the story (if not historical accuracy) let’s just go with that.
I turned the bike upside down and built a rudimentary frame around it to keep it stable. I used a half-gallon jug of water to turn the crank 180˚, and then timed and recorded the number of tire rotations. Did some math and voilà, I had whatever it was I was calculating. Changed the gears, repeated the process, did the math, wrote up the results, pasted them on a foam-core backboard.
So presentation day arrived. I blathered on about my project, I showed that mechanical advantage rises as you go from low gear to high gear, my burned-out hippie teacher seemed content enough, the chicks were impressed with my math skills, I was on my way to an A.
I opened the floor to questions. There was just one question, and of course it came from the one kid in the room who actually raced bikes and did endurance rides.
He said, “Actually, the mechanical advantage falls when you shift to a higher gear.” Translation: “Your entire project is wrong.”
Without missing a beat– without blinking or flinching– I said, as though I’d anticipated that question and was thoroughly prepared for it: “Normally that’s true, but remember the bike was upside-down and the tires weren’t touching the ground, so there was no external friction.”
It was a glorious moment. I should’ve bitten into an apple. Everyone bought my explanation except Burned-Out-Hippie and The Bicyclist. They both looked at me suspiciously but clearly respected my bovine scatology enough to let it slide. I think I got an A on the project.
Now that I’m a teacher, I’m a little less proud of that moment. Hopefully engineering licensure boards are a little more demanding than a particular high school teacher was on that day.