My regular readers know I like to share what I have learned in life in case it will help someone else. With my daughter starting her first year in college this fall, my thoughts naturally turn to my own experiences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
My first class as a freshman was called Design Methods, a problem-solving course where I had absolutely zero experience. The professor would walk into the room, give a vague assignment and then leave us with instructions to have it done by the next class where each student would discuss how he or she came up with their design. For someone who thrived on clear and precise directions, this was a hard class for me. I liked knowing exactly what was expected so I was sure to do it right.
One assignment was particularly ambiguous. The only thing we were allowed to do was light a candle. From there a series of events had to occur - something had to make a noise for 30 seconds, another object had to travel 24 inches and a flag had to rise 3 feet at the end. The entire sequence had to last exactly one minute.
As usual, I waited until the night before the due date to start the project. I headed downstairs to my parents' basement, searching for materials and broke the assignment down by segment. (Why my mother never asked me what I was doing in the basement for five hours with a cigarette lighter, I do not know.)
First I found an empty 2-liter soda bottle, filled it with water, set it upside down in some kind of holder and attached a string to the cap. Once I lit the candle, it would burn the string allowing the cap to drop and water to pour into a funnel. (The sound of the gurgling water met the noise requirement.) Attached to the funnel was a garden hose which led into an empty ice cream bucket placed on a teeter-totter fashioned out of a 2-by-4-foot wooden plank. When the pail filled with water, the teeter-totter would lower, causing a tennis ball inside an orange juice can to roll down a 2-foot section of a downspout ramp. At the end of the ramp was a small flag attached to a wire coat hanger that had been straightened out, bent over and hooked onto a wooden platform. The ball hitting it was enough to jar the wire loose causing the flag to rise 3 feet. After several trials and alterations, I dragged the contraption to class in a large cardboard box, set it up, lit the candle and took a step back praying for each segment to work properly. Everything went off without a hitch with a total time of 58 seconds, which was better than what I was able to achieve in my parent's basement.
What was fascinating to me was how each student had a different solution to the same problem. My favorite idea was also the simplest. A student stuck a yardstick into a coffee can full of sand to hold the yardstick in place and wrapped a rope several times around it with a weight on it. He lit the candle, releasing the end of the rope and it would slowly unwind around the yardstick and as the weight went down, a flag went up.
What I learned from this course is there can be numerous solutions to the same problem - a valuable lesson not only in the classroom but also for the rest of my life.