Tuesday, April 17, 2012


I wrote every single day the month of March, but then missed a couple of weeks  because my computer was in the shop for 9 days. Since it's Tuesday…

 My district is piloting some new integrated units. The fourth grade unit is called "Energized." Last night, after school I went to a two hour workshop on solar energy. The first 15 minutes, the presenter, a math science facilitator at a neighboring elementary school shared a powerpoint about solar energy, but then the real fun began.

"I want to get to the hands-on stuff," said Susan. "First, you are going to make a solar-powered house. Here is the model. While you are doing that, I will be assembling the kits for your solar cars."

And with that, we were off. Carlos, my teammate, had accompanied me to the workshop (I actually think it was his idea in the first place). He picked up his cardboard box and immediately started cutting away. I, on the other hand, went up and looked at the model several times, then looked around for a pattern, and finally decided I was going to have to figure it out. Which I actually did, with only a minimal amount of cursing at the hot glue gun (I have a long and unhappy history with hot glue guns, emphasis on hot), and a little extra packaging tape, to make sure the glue from the aforementioned hot glue gun seams actually held.

Then the real fun began. The solar car came in a bag with about twenty five things- a long flat piece of wood, four little screwy things, a plastic mold of about 27 gears, a straw, and a ten page direction book (so much for my decade long policy of never buying anything where the box was not the same shape as the finished product).

The first step was measuring the wood. I could do that. The second step was to shape the wood, if you so desired. "Just skip that step," said Carlos, who was, by that point, on about Step 8 (did I mention that Carlos' hobby is  restoring classic cars ?).

Step 3 was to insert four little tiny cup hookish things into the wood I had just measured. This step proved a little more difficult. The cuphookish things were teeny-tiny and not that easy to hold onto. You were supposed to try to screw them in straight, and in alignment with the others, so that you could then insert an axle through the cup hook part.

Somewhere between cup hooks one and two, I decided that I would not be attempting this project at home, or in my classroom either. It took me about twenty minutes to screw the four hooks in (23 kids X 20 minutes= 460 minutes, approximately 8 hours of screwing, by my calculations), and yeah, I know kids can do far more than we think, but I just couldn't shake those visions of twenty kids asking for help.

After I got the screws, it was time for the wheel. That only took ten minutes.

Then the gear. "Be sure you choose the right one, or it won't work," advised Carlos, who was now on approximately Step 17. I carefully consulted the gear design sheet, and found what I thought was the right gear. After another ten minutes of trying to shove that gear onto the axle, I consulted Carlos again. "Let me try," he said, taking it out of my hands. It turned out that even though I thought I had been really careful in consulting the gear diagram,  I had looking at the gears upside down, and chosen one with a much smaller hole through the middle than the one I actually needed. Carlos selected the correct gear and handed it back to me. "This should slide on much more easily," he said.

I guess everything is relative, because after ten minutes of shoving and pushing, it was still only a third of  the way down the axle. The direction book advised using a little pressure from a hard surface, but every time I tried that, the axle poked out the other side of the tire, and slid out of the cup hook thingies.

Ry, the cute young man on the other side of me (ok, he was cute except for when he told me that I reminded him of his mom and her expertise with the glue gun), was done with his solar car by this point. "Want me to help you with that?" he said, and took the car gently out of my hands. "Is it ok if I take off this wheel?" he asked. "It will be much easier to put the gear on if we just have to slide it a little way."

I pointed out that the directions had said to do it the other way. "Yeah, well, sometimes you just have to kind of break the rules," he said. It seemed a little ironic that to me that my long standing reputation as a known "rule breaker" was seemingly being thrown back in my face. He put the gear on, slid the axle back through the cup hook thingies, and then put the wheel on the other side too, in approximately two minutes.

By then people were starting to pack up their completed solar houses and solar cars. Susan, concerned, I think that she might have to spend the night at the school with me, came over and helped me put the front wheel and axle together (ok, actually she put the whole front wheel structure together while I watched). While Susan pulled apart the doublestick tape, Carlos assembled the gears and he and Susan mounted my engine. The gears didn't quite mesh, and Susan attempted a fix-up shim with a piece of cardboard. Closer, but it still wasn't quite working.

"I'll fix it for you tomorrow at school," said Carlos, looking at his watch.

As Carlos and I walked out of the workshop, I thought about a few of the kids I know. The ones who struggle with reading. The one who is still trying to figure out long division, almost two months after her peers have mastered it. My son, who hates, hates, hates, high school, but still goes every day.

And I wondered, what would I do, if I had to assemble a solar car every day?


elsie said...

All it takes is to put us out of our comfort zone to realize what some of our students go through day in and day out. So were you energized? :)

Linda B said...

If only we all had an experience like this to give all teachers, Carol. What a lesson. I know of one principal (when I was subbing years ago) that made all his teachers choose something new to learn, like a musical instrument, etc., just so they could understand what the students were experiencing too. thanks-but I am sorry you had such a tough time!