In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell recounts a study out of a prep school in England. The students were asked to come up with a list of uses for a brick. In the book, Gladwell highlights the responses of two students in particular: a student singled out by the faculty as the most brilliant in the school, a prodigy, and another student widely regarded as the class clown. After nearly two minutes, the “prodigy” had come up with only two uses – building and throwing. The class clown, however, came up with a long list of uses for the brick that ranged from slightly deviant (use in smash and grab raids) to creatively simple (hold the edge of a bed down). While Gladwell offers a much more detailed examination of these results, I draw a simple message that can be broadly applied to problem solving: Don’t pigeon-hole a brick.
We recently finished our second week of summer school and the brick concept is one that I’ve used to shape the three week experience. While the official content areas I’m teaching (along with some excellent student teachers) are math and science, I like to refer to the courses as Advanced Problem Solving. Each day, I present the students with a unique problem. The students have been working on various computer programs, wiring dilemmas (electricity), and most recently – solar ovens. For the most part, I throw a bunch of supplies at the students (or student teachers :-), give some vague goals, and let them have at it. In the case of the solar ovens, I brought in some boxes, foil, and box of junk. The goal was simple – make it get as hot as possible.
For two and a half periods, the students researched designs, cut, folded, and taped their boxes into various configurations. In my box of junk, some students found old cds and mirrors, which they fastened to the boxes to help focus sunlight. Another student brought in the top of a doughnut box, that had a clear plastic cover to help trap heat. Another student used an old piece of broken, rigid plastic as his transparent heat container. Our first test was foiled by a huge row of clouds that blocked out the sun for most of the period. The second day, we took the boxes to the roof and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. The results were mixed, but awesome. One of the boxes reached 230 degrees Fahrenheit, while another hit 180. A few of the others got up to 120-130 degrees and one box fell over. The next day, for fun, we took the solar ovens back to the roof with some hot dogs. While the wind messed up a few of the ovens, a couple students (one who’s oven had blown over the day before) cooked their hot dogs to edibility.
It was an example of what I’ve decided to refer to as “brickiness” – using something for an unintended purpose. Over the next several posts, I’ll try and highlight some more tales of brickiness. The java slideshow (not flash – it will work on ipods and probably feed readers) above is another example. It took me a little playing to make it work, but I’ll write more about it later. If you think the brick idea is cool – let me know.
Update: Apparently, my work around to make the slideshow work in feed readers didn’t take – click through to see or gander at the picture below.