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Rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa. The flowers make an excellent yellow dye.

Rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa. The flowers make an excellent yellow dye.

Last September, in a conversation with our biology teacher, I learned that common rabbit brush makes an excellent yellow dye for natural fabrics. It was used by Native Americans and early pioneers to dye cotton, linen, and wool. I grew up thinking of rabbit brush as a useless scrub brush that grew in unused corners on our farm where the soil had high alkali or clay or low drainage. It is often seen along road cuts and other areas where the soil has been removed or disturbed, and is one of the first plants to colonize bare soil.

Rabbitbrush grows in poor soils and is one of the first plants to colonize disturbed areas.

Rabbitbrush grows in poor soils and is one of the first plants to colonize disturbed areas.

Intrigued by our conversation, I did some research. Its Latin name is Ericameria nauseosa for good reason: up close, the blossoms smell rather nauseating. In the early fall, it blooms with tight bundles of bright yellow flowers that can be steeped in boiling water and used for dye. I also found that it contains around 6% latex rubber in its stems and leaves to protect it from dehydrating. If a commercial method could be devised to extract the latex economically, it would be a valuable plant to grow and harvest. I had no idea.

Students prepare a dye bath of sunflower petals.

Students prepare a dye bath of sunflower petals.

I decided to try rabbit brush dye in my chemistry class. My course schedule for chemistry is already overflowing with more activities and labs than I can accommodate in our limited classroom time. To add a new activity would mean giving something else up. So adding a fabric dyeing lab would only be possible if I used the activity to fulfill more than one objective. I decided it would make a great inquiry lab to introduce the scientific method and meet Utah’s Intended Learning Outcome objectives. These ILOs include teaching the history and nature of science and the scientific method across all science courses.

Cloth soaking in a boiling dye bath made of rabbitbrush blossoms.

Cloth soaking in a boiling dye bath made of rabbitbrush blossoms.

I already had a number of large pieces of undyed fabric, including cotton, linen, silk, and polyester. I scrounged or ordered other types of dyestuffs, including walnut shells and cochineal. I cut the fabric into small swatches and purchased washing soda (sodium carbonate), cream of tartar, and other possible mordants. I also brought in a number of large pots from home.

Dye bath made from walnut shells. The original bath was the dark brown color seen with the shells, but it was accidentally thrown out. The second attempt was lighter.

Dye bath made from walnut shells. The original bath was the dark brown color seen with the shells, but it was accidentally thrown out. The second attempt was lighter.

On the first day of the activity, I introduced the process of science and the idea of variables and how to create an experimental design to control them. We then took a short field trip to a road embankment about ¼ mile from Walden School where a good stand of rabbit brush was growing. We collected several bags full of yellow blossoms. The students then divided into lab teams and designed their own experiments.

Samples of cochineal dye solutions. Cochineal is a sessile insect that lives on prickly pear cactus in Mexico and South America. It is collected, dried, and crushed to make carmine dye.

Samples of cochineal dye solutions. Cochineal is a sessile insect that lives on prickly pear cactus in Mexico and South America. It is collected, dried, and crushed to make carmine dye.

We boiled the rabbit brush blossoms, some black-eyed susan petals we collected along the way (commonly called sunflowers in Utah), and walnut shells in water. The cochineal shells were ground up in a mortar and pestle, releasing a deep burgundy liquid (carminic acid). The group that tested cochineal added varying amounts of tartaric acid to stabilize the color and create a brighter red. Each group tested both synthetic and natural fibers. Some groups tested mordants, which set the color by opening up the fabric fibers. Some groups tested different times in the dye bath, or different temperatures. In each case, they tried to test one variable and keep all the others constant.

Solutions of cochineal (carmine) dye. To create the different hues of red, tartaric acid was added.

Solutions of cochineal (carmine) dye. To create the different hues of red, tartaric acid was added.

The designing, preparation, boiling, and dyeing was done on our second day. It was a Friday before a long weekend, and we discovered an unanticipated variable. Leaving the cloth in the dye baths over the weekend resulted in mold growing in the water and on the cloth. One group testing the walnut shells accidentally dumped out their dye bath, which was a rich, deep brown. They had to start over using the same walnut shells, and the second time the color was much weaker. All of these problems and their effects were noted in the students’ lab notebooks.

The sunflower (Black-eyed Susan) dye bath turned brown when boiled. It also grew mold over the weekend.

The sunflower (Black-eyed Susan) dye bath turned brown when boiled. It also grew mold over the weekend.

After dyeing, we rinsed and dried the cloth swatches. One team took their swatches home and washed half of them several time in order to test the color fastness. In order to get numeric data that could be analyzed statistically, we compared the color by scanning the dried swatches into a computer and using the Eyedropper tool in Adobe Photoshop to click on three areas of each swatch, then record the RGB values and average them per swatch. The HSB values (Hue, Saturation, and Brightness) were also compared.

Finished swatches after dyeing and drying. The pink is cochineal, yellow is rabbitbrush, even tan is walnut, and uneven tan is sunflowers. Undyed cloth is also shown for a control.

Finished swatches after dyeing and drying. The pink is cochineal, yellow is rabbitbrush, even tan is walnut, and uneven tan is sunflowers. Undyed cloth is also shown for a control.

The students drew their own conclusions based on the variables they were controlling and wrote up the results in their lab books, answering a series of questions I gave them to help them consider what they had done. By the time we finished, we had spent about five days of class time, which was quite an investment but well worth it. We followed up by discussing how dyes are done commercially, other types of natural dyes such as indigo and madder root, and the invention of aniline dyes derived from coal tar such as Sir William Henry Perkin’s discovery of mauve dye in 1856.

William Henry Perkin, who discovered the first synthetic aniline dye (mauveine) at age 18 in 1856.

William Henry Perkin, who discovered the first synthetic aniline dye (mauveine) at age 18 in 1856.

Some notes for improving the lab for next time: I need to make sure we don’t leave the dyes over the weekend, and I want to use wool as a natural fiber in addition to cotton, linen, and silk. I tried looking for undyed and untreated wool, but the hobby stores only carry the mostly synthetic brands that are dyed white. Next time I will have to see if any of my students have access to natural wool yarn, or order it directly. I would like to dye untreated yarn in each color and crochet hats or scarves from it. I don’t want to mess with indigo, as that is quite a process, but I will order some madder root and other natural dyes.

A letter from William Henry Perkin, Jr. and  sample of silk cloth dyed with mauveine, the first aniline dye made from coal tar derivatives. It is a much brighter color than we usually associate with mauve today.

A letter from William Henry Perkin, Jr. and sample of silk cloth dyed with mauveine, the first aniline dye made from coal tar derivatives. It is a much brighter color than we usually associate with mauve today.

Finally, I would like to find a way to stabilize the dyes (perhaps by adding vinegar, etc.) so that mold won’t grow, then use the natural dyes for tie-dyed shirts. It would also be fun to make a dye out of purple cabbage juice, soak a cotton shirt in it, then treat it with squirt bottles containing mild acids and bases to change the color of the fabric like a pH strip, then set the colors by heat treating.

Schrödinger's Undead Cat

Schrödinger’s Undead Cat

This post will be out of sequence compared with the subjects around it, but I need to post this today so my chemistry students can make use of the resources here during class.

As part of the STEM-Arts Alliance project I’ve implemented in my science classes over the last two years, I’ve tried out a number of different ways to help students learn STEM concepts through art and history. You’ve hopefully looked at some of the other projects we’ve done, such as making iron-gall ink and watercolor pigments, junk sculptures, element ornaments, stop motion animation, etc. For our recent project, my students and I have created a large banner, which is a timeline of the history of atomic theory.

Greek philosophers: Anaximander, Anaxemines, Heraclitus, and Parmenides. Illustrations by David Black.

Greek philosophers: Anaximander, Anaxemines, Heraclitus, and Parmenides. Illustrations by David Black.

I designed the banner to fit along one wall of my classroom. It is 15 feet long and four feet wide, except where a chunk had to be cut out to avoid the door. Each student selected an atomic theorist from a list and researched that person, writing up a long paragraph on who they were, what they did to advance our understanding of the atom, and why it was significant. In addition to this caption, the students also had to find a photo or illustration of the person and another of their theories or apparatus. Most of these were images found on the Internet, but a few were original drawings. One of my students, Katie, drew a picture of Erwin Schrödinger with a zombie cat emerging from his brain – well, the cat is both alive and dead, so it must be an undead cat . . .

Paracelsus, drawn by a student using homemade iron-gall ink.

Paracelsus, drawn by a student using homemade iron-gall ink.

My students then used my color printer to print their captions and illustrations out and glue them onto the banner paper at the approximately correct position for the timeline. We focused on the period from about 1700 through the present, and I included images from the Powerpoints I created to explain quantum numbers and atomic theory. I am posting those Powerpoints here as .pdf files so my students can download them:

Quantum_Numbers-small

Atomic Theory-s

The entire banner with students from my chemistry class.

The entire banner with students from my chemistry class.

In addition to the 1700-present section, I included images, photos, illustrations, and text from all of history as humanity has learned to work with materials, isolated the elements, and proposed theories to explain what they observed. I also included materials on alchemy in the Middle Ages, China, and Arabian countries. Some of these were photos I had taken of ancient texts while at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia during the summer of 2009; I’ve been meaning to put them in a format that students can use.

Students answering questions at the banner.

Students answering questions at the banner.

Once the banner was done, I wrote up a series of questions based on the students’ captions as well as my Powerpoints and the Periodic Table History video I made five years ago. Today my chemistry students are continuing to read the banner and write the answers to the questions as a take home test. Here are the questions:

Atomic Theory Banner Assignment

The Stone Age section of the banner

The Stone Age section of the banner

I am also posting photos of the major sections of the banner here as well so that they can access the banner online over the next several days.

Here are the sections of the banner:

The Bronze Age through Roman times

The Bronze Age through Roman times

Medieval and Renaissance sections of the banner.

Medieval and Renaissance sections of the banner.

The Scientific Revolution section of the banner

The Scientific Revolution section of the banner

Sub-Atomic particles

Sub-Atomic particles

Section on Rutherford and Einstein

Section on Rutherford and Einstein

Schrodinger section of the banner.

Schrodinger section of the banner.

The Standard Model section of the banner

The Standard Model section of the banner

Twilight in Boston as I walk the Freedom Trail.

Twilight in Boston as I walk the Freedom Trail.

On Saturday, April 7, 2014 I was in Boston attending the National Science Teachers Association conference. After the Aerospace Educators Luncheon featuring astronaut Joe Acaba was over, I decided to take the afternoon and explore the city. I had never been to Boston before, and this might be my only chance. I had always loved studying the Revolutionary War, but had never really known all the details of the events that led up to the War. I hope through this post to put the events and the places together for you and help clear up some the same misconceptions I’ve always had.

A pavilion on the Boston Commons

A pavilion on the Boston Commons

It was about 3:00 when I set out from my hostel at 40 Berkeley St. I had already walked around the area enough to know my way to Boston Common, where my exploration began. I crossed to a pavilion and on to the northeast corner of the Common, where the Massachusetts State House stands. It was finished in 1795 when Samuel Adams was governor of the state, and the dome was originally sheathed in copper by Paul Revere from his newly established copper sheeting business. It is now gilded in gold.

Massachusetts State House

Massachusetts State House

Speaking of Paul Revere and Sam Adams, they apparently laid down a time capsule as the state house was finished, which was just rediscovered about a week ago as I write this (Dec. 27, 2014). There was water leaking around part of the foundation, and workers discovered the box as they were making repairs. They plan to open it in a few days. Much of what I was about to see and explore was influenced by those two men, and a type of electronic time capsule about them and the city they walked in is what I want this blog post to be.

Monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment

Monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment

Just across the street on the edge of the Commons stands a memorial to Robert Gould Shaw, a Colonel in command of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. This was the all black regiment that led the assault on Ft. Wagner in July, 1863. Many lost their lives in that charge, including Colonel Shaw. Their experiences training and gaining equal pay and treatment were immortalized in the movie “Glory.” This is the original monument – I have seen a gilded plaster copy of it in the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C.

Robert Gould Shaw

Robert Gould Shaw

The Freedom Trail basically starts here; to walk it, one must follow a red line of bricks laid into the sidewalks. It zigzags across the city, over the Charles River, and ends at the Bunker Hill Memorial. From the State House it crosses the Commons to the southeast corner and the North Park Church. It turns past the church and passes the Granary Burial Grounds, where Paul Revere and Sam Adams are buried. The victims of the Boston Massacre are buried here as well. More on this later.

The Granary Burying Ground, where Paul Revere and Sam Adams are buried

The Granary Burying Ground, where Paul Revere and Sam Adams are buried

I followed the line of red bricks past one of the first schools in America and past the Old City Hall. I turned a corner where the route looped back on itself, and bought a hot dog from a street vender’s cart. There was a bookstore there called the Old Corner Bookstore that I poked around in for a moment before continuing. It wasn’t until later, researching the route, that I discovered it was frequented by Thoreau and Emerson. Since I couldn’t get out to Concord to see Walden Pond (I teach at Walden School, after all), it was good that I at least got to browse where he used to browse.

A marker on the Freedom Trail

A marker on the Freedom Trail

I passed a Potbelly Sandwich Works and I was still hungry (the hot dog had only whetted my appetite), so I stopped in and got a Wreck. It was tasty. Had I known what I was about to find, I might have waited. I walked on past the Old State House, a red brick building with a spire trimmed in gilded edges. There were so many things to see, and so many historic plaques to read that I didn’t notice a plain circle of cobblestones inset into the walkway. It was the site of the Boston Massacre.

Old State House. The square near where I took this photograph is the site of the Boston Massacre.

Old State House. The square near where I took this photograph is the site of the Boston Massacre.

The Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian War) had cost the British a great deal, and new sources of revenue were explored. Parliament thought it only natural that the Colonies should pay back the cost of protecting them during the war, and a series of taxes were levied on Colonial goods, including molasses, sugar, paper, etc. During the late 1760s, the colonists began to protest, for both economic and political reasons. Sam Adams wrote instructions for the delegates of the Massachusetts Assembly that pointed out a leading concern for the colonists: did the Parliament in England have the right to levy taxes against the Colonies without their permission or representation?

Paul Revere's colored engraving of the Boston Massacre

Paul Revere’s colored engraving of the Boston Massacre

As the protests grew, mobs destroyed customs houses, hung public officials in effigy, and became increasingly vocal and agitated. Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer for Great Britain, proposed a series of acts that would also raise revenue to directly pay governors and other public officials (instead of them being paid by the colonial assemblies), thereby removing them from colonial control. More protests broke out, and the situation spiraled downhill.

Detailed map of the Freedom Trail in Boston. At this point in my journey, I was in the Quincy Market area.

Detailed map of the Freedom Trail in Boston. At this point in my journey, I was in the Quincy Market area.

The Crown appointed governor, fearing what he saw as lawlessness in Boston, asked for British soldiers to be posted in the city. Instead of ensuring the peace, the soldiers’ presence only fanned the flames. In 1770, a group of British regulars was harassed by a mob of angry Bostonians. No one is entirely sure what happened, but the soldiers opened fire and five men were killed outright or died from wounds and another six were wounded. Sam Adam’s second cousin, John Adams, made himself a name as a lawyer by defending six of the British soldiers, getting them acquitted on the grounds that they were only following orders.

A simplified map of the Freedom Trail in Boston.

A simplified map of the Freedom Trail in Boston.

This incident became the rallying point for an escalating series of protests against the British government’s policies. Paul Revere created a famous engraving of the massacre, which was printed and colored by hand. Most of the Townshend Acts were repealed, but one remained: the tax on tea. This law was strengthened and enforced, giving the East India Company a monopoly on the tea trade and cutting out the middlemen tea merchants in the colonies. It also undercut the price of tea, thereby killing the profit of tea merchants who were smuggling in Dutch tea. Several ships loaded with tea were stuck in Boston Harbor unable to unload their cargo. The governor refused to let them leave, thereby supporting the Crown’s policies. When a fresh wave of protests broke out, Governor Thomas Hutchinson disbanded the Boston Town Meeting, which was the local city government. Sam Adams called for a town meeting anyway, and thousands showed up on the evening of Dec. 16, 1773.

Faneuil Hall in Boston. At a meeting led by Sam Adams on Dec. 16, 1773, a group of men initiated the Boston Tea Party.

Faneuil Hall in Boston. At a meeting led by Sam Adams on Dec. 16, 1773, a group of men initiated the Boston Tea Party.

I passed Faneuil Hall, where this meeting was held. Emotions ran high, and a group of about 100 men left the meeting and headed down to the harbor, where they proceeded to dump the tea into the water.

Quincy Market in Boston

Quincy Market in Boston

The British government overreacted again, passing a series of laws called the Coercive Acts (known as the Intolerable Acts in America), which closed Boston Harbor and repealed the Charter from King Charles that allowed Boston to have self-government. British soldiers were quartered in prominent citizens’ homes, partly to act as spies. They were allowed to search and seize any properties that might be used to support the growing rebellion without a warrant. No public meetings were allowed and arms were confiscated; basically, Boston was under siege.

One of the many food stalls inside Quincy's Market.

One of the many food stalls inside Quincy’s Market.

I crossed the square by Faneuil Hall to the Quincy Market, then and now a gathering place and market in what was then central Boston. There are three long buildings side by side, much like shopping malls today with individual businesses lining the hallway in each building. There was a street band playing in the square, and I couldn’t help contrasting this with the civil unrest and anxiety that marked those days in the early 1770s. When I saw the different food venders in Quincy Market, I wished I had left some room for chowda or crab cakes or other local fare. I will remember next time. I ran into Coral Clark with some other SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors there.

A recreation of the Green Dragon Tavern, where the Sons of Liberty planned the rebellion.

A recreation of the Green Dragon Tavern, where the Sons of Liberty planned the rebellion.

I followed the red line beyond Quincy Market. It led further north into an alleyway past the Green Dragon Pub. This is not the original pub, which was located nearby on Union Street, but it gives a feeling of what it might have been like.

The Haymarket area and Durty Nellie's Tavern at sunset

The Haymarket area and Durty Nellie’s Tavern at sunset

Even before the Boston Tea Party, the leaders of the protests had to go into hiding. A group of men called the Sons of Liberty met in the basement of the Green Dragon to plan their next moves. They organized Committees of Correspondence to carry the news of the British crackdown on Boston to the other colonies and to convince them that common action was needed. Governor Hutchinson was recalled, and a new governor appointed by the Crown: General Thomas Gage. He had previously served alongside George Washington in the French and Indian War and was promoted to be the commander in chief of all the armed forces in the colonies. As governor he enforced the Coercive Acts and cracked down on dissent. He dissolved the Massachusetts Assembly, partly because they had sent delegates (including Sam Adams) to the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Mike's Pastry in the North End of Boston

Mike’s Pastry in the North End of Boston

I crossed over into the old North End of Boston, continuing to follow the red line. I missed a turn at an intersection and continued along Hanover Street. I noticed a crowd of people lined up to enter a shop on the street. It was called Mike’s Pastry, so I took some photos. I had seen people carrying boxes from Mike’s already as I walked through the city, so I figured this must be a well-known place. The signs inside show they serve many types of cannoli, as well as Boston cream pie. I didn’t take the time to stand in line, but decided I must visit here if I ever get back to Boston. When I returned home to Utah, I asked one of our part-time teachers, Grady, about Mike’s and he confirmed it is considered the best place for pastries in Boston. Grady had taken a year out from college to work on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and had come to know Boston well.

The crowd at Mike's Pastry on a Saturday night. Cannoli, anyone?

The crowd at Mike’s Pastry on a Saturday night. Cannoli, anyone?

I retraced my steps and found the red line again, which had made a zig to pass Paul Revere’s house. It zagged back to Hanover and on to the Old North Church. In the courtyard leading to the church is a large statute of Paul Revere on horseback. I could hear Longfellow’s words reflecting in my mind:

The statue of Paul Revere in near the Old North Church in Boston

The statue of Paul Revere in near the Old North Church in Boston

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Old North Church at sunset

Old North Church at sunset

Sam Adams and John Hancock were considered public enemies, and left Boston to stay at a friends’ house in Lexington. The Minutemen militias in the communities around Boston started stockpiling arms in case of hostilities. The situation had become explosive. To prevent further provocation, the British soldiers were removed from the city and stationed on boats in the harbor and on Castle William, an island in the harbor.

Spire of the Old North Church. as seen from the direction of Charlestown. "One if by land, two if by sea."

Spire of the Old North Church. as seen from the direction of Charlestown. “One if by land, two if by sea.”

Hearing of the caches of arms in Middlesex County, Gov. Gage ordered troops to march on Concord and seize the cache there. Although not in the official orders, he also wanted to apprehend Adams and Hancock. What he didn’t know was that his own personal physician, Dr. Joseph Warren, was a Son of Liberty and passing on the Governor’s every move. The group was warned of Gage’s intent to seize the arms, but they didn’t know one thing: how would the British Regulars move – by land from Charlestown or by water up the Charles River? Lookouts saw the British moving up the river, embarking near the north end of the Commons, so Revere hung two lanterns in the North Church belfry to signal a rider across the river, then decided to ride out himself. He asked friends to row him across the river to Charlestown. Even though the river was guarded at that time of night, he was able to slip past the British ships and reach the north shore of the river without incident.

Over the hill past Cobb's Hill Burial Ground. A pylon of the new Zakim-Bunker Hill bridge is visible.

Over the hill past Copp’s Hill Burial Ground. A pylon of the new Zakim-Bunker Hill bridge is visible. It was built ten years ago as part of the Big Dig, which restructured I-93 through Boston, among other changes.

William Dawes was also dispatched by Dr. Warren to give the alarm. They took separate routes through Middlesex County, and at each stop more riders spread in every direction, until dozens of men and one woman were rousing the countryside that the British soldiers were on the march. Revere took a northerly route from Charlestown; Dawes traveled south across Boston Neck and around to Lexington.

It’s unlikely Revere or the others said, “The British are coming!” since all of the Americans considered themselves to be British. They probably would have cried something like, “The Regulars are coming out!”

Paul Revere: Midnight rider, silversmith, patriot, and copper magnate.

Paul Revere: Midnight rider, silversmith, patriot, and copper magnate.

Revere made it to the Hancock-Clarke home in Lexington first, followed shortly by Dawes. They warned Adams and Hancock that the Regulars intended to arrest them and helped them pack up and leave. Then they decided to ride on to Concord in case the arms cache was the real target. Dawes had been instrumental in smuggling several cannon out of Boston, which were hidden in Concord, and he wanted to ensure their safety. They met Dr. Samuel Prescott on the way, who agreed to ride with them. They were waylaid by British sentries on the road to Concord and decided to make a break for it, each scattering in separate directions. Dawes rode into a local house’s courtyard and yelled that the Regulars were coming. Fearing the house’s occupants would turn on them, the soldiers turned back. But then Dawes’ horse bucked him off and he had to walk back to Lexington. Revere was apprehended and held captive. Only Prescott made it to Concord to warn the militia there.

Routes taken by Revere, Dawes, and the British Regulars on April 18-19, 1775.

Routes taken by Revere, Dawes, and the British Regulars on April 18-19, 1775.

I walked up over the hill past Copp’s Burial Ground and down to the walking trail along the river. It was too late for me to walk across the bridge and climb Bunker Hill, but I could look across to the monument there and the masts of the U.S.S. Constitution in the naval yard. As I watched, a canon boomed out and the United States flag was lowered from the yardarm of the Constitution. I imagined what this area looked like back then, as Revere, Dawes, and others rode out to warn the countryside.

The masts of the U.S.S. Constitution, looking across the Charles River and Boston Harbor to Charlestown.

The masts of the U.S.S. Constitution, looking across the Charles River and Boston Harbor to Charlestown.

The British expedition was poorly organized and they didn’t get all their men and supplies over the river to Cambridge until after midnight. The men had to unload the barges in knee high mud and water, and then faced a 17-mile march to Concord. As they marched toward Lexington, they heard the sounds of alarm being raised all around and knew they had lost the element of surprise.

The column of about 500 British regulars could see militiamen running toward the commons in Lexington as they marched up the road. The colonial militia was beginning to form up in the square as others were running behind the fence lines along the road toward the green. The colonial leader, John Parker, ordered his men to hold their fire unless they were fired upon, but he was suffering from tuberculosis and his voice was not well heard.

Engraving of the Battle of Lexington Green, April 19, 1775.

Engraving of the Battle of Lexington Green, April 19, 1775.

The redcoats saw the militia forming on Lexington Green and the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Francis Smith, ordered Major John Pitcairn ahead. Just at sunrise on April 19, Pitcairn marched his men rapidly into the square yelling “Huzzah!” He hoped to surround and confuse the colonists. At this moment a shot or two rang out. It is not known for certain who fired it. I’ve read eyewitness accounts and sworn affidavits from both sides, including colonials and Regulars. The colonials swear that Pitcairn gave the order to fire. The British all swear that they first heard several shots coming from the colonials (probably from the militiamen hiding behind fences), and that Pitcairn was merely trying to defend his men. This was the “Shot heard round the world.” In the confusion, no one knows for sure. It wasn’t much of a battle – merely a skirmish. Eight colonists were killed and the rest withdrew.

The British marched on to Concord. But the intentions of the British had been known days in advance, and the most of the arms were already moved away. The Regulars searched through the town but found only a few buried cannon, some ammunition, and some food stores. Prescott’s warning gave the militia time to form up properly, and they stayed on a hill overlooking the town as the regulars searched. More militia were arriving continuously from outlying farms until they outnumbered the Regulars. The British captain in charge of defending the North Bridge was inexperienced and became spooked by the nearby militia units. He retreated back across the bridge and set up a formation more appropriate for street fighting than for fighting on open ground. One of the Regulars fired a warning shot as the militia advanced, and several other regulars joined in. The colonials fired back and several British were killed.

The Bunker Hill Memorial

The Bunker Hill Memorial

Seeing that his mission to Concord was useless and fearing an organized attack, Lt. Col. Smith ordered a withdrawal from Concord. More militia arrived and harried the British; they fought a running battle all the way back to Lexington, where they received reinforcements. They rested briefly, then withdrew back toward Charlestown, fighting all the way, and trying to maintain disciplined columns while the colonists ran a shifting engagement. They would ambush the British from every defensive position, including groves of trees, bends in the road, and houses. The 1700 British Regulars marched in a military square with flanking parties sent out to drive the Americans from their positions, but the colonials simply faded back and around the British to harass them again. The British were exhausted and short on ammunition whereas the Americans were now almost 4000 strong. By the time they made it to Charlestown, the British had suffered far more casualties than the Americans.

Sign to Boston's North End

Sign to Boston’s North End

That’s how the Revolutionary War began. It might not be what you read in Longfellow’s poem, but there it is. As a history teacher, I’m fascinated by the first-person accounts of what happened and the decisions that led to revolution. It seems the British government completely misunderstood the needs of the colonists, and botched the whole thing. Of course, the Sons of Liberty were definitely radical hot heads who forced the issue through protests and outright rebellion. What was the Crown to do but make an example of them? But everything they did only made the situation worse.

This street marker sums it all up.

This street marker sums it all up.

As night came on I walked back through Boston to the Commons. A bitterly cold wind began to blow off the harbor, and I was glad to get back to the warmth of my room at 40 Berkeley. I’ve learned so much more about events that led to the Revolution by walking through the very streets where it happened. I must return some day and also visit Lexington and Concord and see the places where it all started. I hear a new miniseries called The Sons of Liberty will air on the History Channel in January. I hope they get it right.

NSTA in Boston: Day 1

Arriving at Logan International Airport in Boston

Arriving at Logan International Airport in Boston

I’m trying to catch up on topics I haven’t written about this year before the year ends. This post will cover my trip to Boston in April to attend the National Science Teachers Association annual conference, where I presented on my experiences flying on SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy). I wrote notes during the sessions I attended, but have never reported on them here. It’s about eight months overdue.

40 Berkeley, a hostel in the Copley Square area of Boston

40 Berkeley, a hostel in the Copley Square area of Boston

I hope you don’t mind that this comes across as a travelogue; my intent is to show what it’s like to attend an NSTA conference and the kinds of activities you can expect if you are thinking of attending. There are so many sessions, tours, and activities to choose from that you can focus your schedule to learn specific things, as I did.

The sign for 40 Berkeley, where I stayed on my trip to NSTA in Boston.

The sign for 40 Berkeley, where I stayed on my trip to NSTA in Boston.

The conference was held on April 4-7, 2014 at the Boston Convention Center. I had received a professional development grant from the American Chemical Society that paid most of my way there. I had $750 to spend on this conference. That meant airfare, hotel, and meals. I couldn’t save too much on airfare (it is what it is), so I had to save on hotel costs. I did a thorough search of all possibilities and found a place that was barely affordable in a decent location near where I could catch a conference shuttle bus. It is called 40 Berkeley, and is a hostel with individual rooms and a nice hot breakfast served daily.

My room at 40 Berkeley. It was rather spartan, with only a bed, dresser, small closet, radiator, and window (with broken blinds). They give you one towel to use in a common bathroom. But they do serve good hot breakfasts downstairs.

My room at 40 Berkeley. It was rather spartan, with only a bed, dresser, small closet, radiator, and window (with broken blinds). They give you one towel to use in a common bathroom. But they do serve good hot breakfasts downstairs.

I flew to Boston on Wednesday afternoon, April 3, right after school and arrived at Logan Airport around 11:00 pm (I lost two hours going east). I had to wait a while for my shuttle van, and enjoyed the drive through Boston. This was my first time here, and when I saw Boston listed as the site of a future NSTA conference several years ago, I decided I would get here somehow. Now I’m here, although not in the fall.

Dining room at 40 Berkeley. They serve an excellent hot breakfast cafeteria style.

Dining room at 40 Berkeley. They serve an excellent hot breakfast cafeteria style.

I got to 40 Berkeley about midnight. They have a 24-hour desk, so I got my room and headed upstairs to the sixth floor. It is a bare bones room – just a single bed and a small dresser and a closet. The blinds were damaged and couldn’t shut in places, and I had trouble figuring out the radiator. The room was too hot, so I had to open the window to be able to sleep. But I did sleep.

My walking route from 40 Berkeley to the shuttle bus at the Marriott Copley Place.

My walking route from 40 Berkeley to the shuttle bus at the Marriott Copley Place.

After showering in the common bathroom, I got dressed and headed down to the basement for breakfast, which was served cafeteria style and was actually quite good, with choices of eggs, bacon, sausages, waffles or pancakes, juice, and more.

The view from my route along Appleton St. in Boston, April 4, 2014.

The view from my route along Appleton St. in Boston, April 4, 2014.

I then walked southwest down Appleton St., crossed over Columbus Ave. to Canton St., across the biking path to Harcourt St. and picked up the conference shuttle bus in front of the Boston Marriott Copley Place. By the time the bus arrived at the convention center, it was already past 8:00 and the first session was already going. I decided to wait in line to get my registration packet, nametag, and presenter ribbon. I did make it in to the very tail end of a session on a model racecar activity. I mostly wanted a place to sit down and look through the conference book to plan out my day.

Designing a helmet to protect a "brain" (egg) while being wearable.

Designing a helmet to protect a “brain” (egg) while being wearable.

This was the only day I would not have any responsibilities, so I packed lightly with just my camera bag and computer bag with my smaller computer and no notebook. I decided I could take notes on the computer just as easily, and it would save having this huge weight hanging from my shoulder all day, which had killed me in San Antonio last year. I knew it would grow heavier as I added the conference booklet and materials from vendor booths.

I walked around the edges of the conference center and at 10:00 attended a session about eCybermission, an engineering design challenge program that I have thought about having my students compete in. We worked as teams to design a “helmet” that would prevent “brains” (an egg) from getting splattered on impact while being relatively easy to wear. Our design did not do its job. The brains splattered. But it was fun to see some of the designs that did work. We had been given a tabletop full of materials, ranging from paper and tape to pieces of egg cartons, but when we went to drop our design, it flipped sideways and landed right on the egg.

A Wascally Wabbit on the dealers' floor at the NSTA conference in Boston, 2014.

A Wascally Wabbit on the dealers’ floor at the NSTA conference in Boston, 2014.

The presenters did mention a recent book on teaching engineering by some guy named Eric Brunsell. I’ve known Eric since 2000 when we were all part of the Solar System Educator Program at JPL. I didn’t know he’d written a book for NSTA, but up until recently he and Martin Horejsi have been writing a monthly column on using Web 2.0 in the science classroom for The Science Teacher.

I had half an hour to the next session, so I hit the dealer’s room, which was centrally located. I didn’t stop for anything, just headed straight to the SOFIA booth and checked in. They had things covered pretty well, and told of plans for dinner tonight. While I was there, Martin Horejsi stopped by to say hi. The Solar System Educator Program is always well-represented here.

A dark matter halo around a cluster of galaxies distorts the light due to gravitational lensing.

A dark matter halo around a cluster of galaxies distorts the light due to gravitational lensing.

I was a bit late for an interesting session on Dark Matter. They did the old gravity simulator activity, but then went into a great discussion of potential dark mater candidates, including MACHOs, WIMPs, black holes, brown dwarfs, and neutrinos. Apparently all of these fail as an explanation for some reason or other. I had thought neutrinos were the leading candidate; if they have even a minute amount of mass, there are so many of them that they would really add up. But I learned that even at their highest possible mass, neutrinos could only account for about 20% of the dark matter known to exist. As I tell my students, whoever solves this problem will win a Nobel Prize or two.

They also described how we know that dark matter exists, through measuring the rotation rate of stars in galaxies and seeing that if luminous matter (baryonic matter) is the only mass in galaxies, then the stars are moving too fast and would fly right out of the galaxies. Something that doesn’t interact with light, yet has mass, is keeping all of the baryonic matter contained. It also creates the filamental structure of galactic clusters in the universe and the voids between.

Danger Shield sensor board mounted onto an Arduino controller (underneath). Our setups were similar. Notice the three manual sliders and LED readout. Various types of sensors can be attached.

Danger Shield sensor board mounted onto an Arduino controller (underneath). Our setups were similar. Notice the three manual sliders and LED readout. Various types of sensors can be attached.

I attended a session on Maker Science with Arduinos. These are microprocessor controllers or mini-computers similar to Raspberry Pi computers, only about $35 each, which can be programmed with Python. I had seen these in action controlling an off-the shelf RC car, turning it into a remotely operated robot for acquiring 3D data on soil crusts in the Mojave Desert by Geoff Chu and a group of roboticists from NASA Ames Research Center back in 2012. Since I was teaching computer programming classes that semester, I wanted to learn more about them. We learned how to control an LED light on the board and change the timing for a loop to make the light blink. The presenters also showed how to hook up and initialize a Danger Shield from SparkFun Science, a $20 electronics board that attaches directly to an Arduino and provides inputs for USB based sensors. I need to get one and try it out.

I went to a session next on Project-Based Learning Using Technology, but it was disappointing. They didn’t use any technology to actually teach the class – not even a powerpoint – and their handouts had typos and poor layout and what was listed showed me fairly quickly that I was much further along than they were in using tech in my classrooms.

I skipped out and headed back to the dealer’s room to go through the exhibits more thoroughly. I have seen many of these displays before but gathered what I could from them – I wanted to travel light, so I didn’t collect many handouts. There were a few things of interest, such as a new magazine by the ACS for high school chemistry teachers that I might want to submit articles for.

Downtown Boston in the evening, as seen from the shuttle bus.

Downtown Boston in the evening, as seen from the shuttle bus.

On my way out I ran into Cheryl Sotelo from the NASA Educator Workshops days. She was the Educator Facilitator for NASA Ames and I was the Facilitator for JPL from 2002-2004. I had last seen her when we said goodbye and had a praline toast at the casino on the coast of Gulfport, Mississippi back in 2004 as we finished up the NEW planning workshop. So much has changed – the NEW program is essentially gone, with only a ghost of an online presence anymore. The casino itself was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina a year later. She is in Washington, D.C. this year as an Einstein Fellow, a program I hope to participate in a year or two from now.

I went to one final session on Making as Learning, and how this ties in to STEM, but found it was fairly basic stuff. I am trying to get grant money to purchase a 3D printer for my school so that my 3D students can begin to print out what they have created, and we can begin to teach engineering design and prototyping. What we have been doing already in my STEM-Arts Alliance program surpasses much of what I am seeing here today.

As you can see, this first day at NSTA I focused on technology, engineering, and the maker movement and how I can bring these ideas to my own classes. There have been some very valuable ideas, and more than one presenter has mentioned a book by Stager and Martinez that I need to check out.

Boston buildings in twilight as I walk back to 40 Berkeley. Do you notice the anomaly?

Boston buildings in twilight as I walk back to 40 Berkeley. Do you notice the anomaly?

I caught the shuttle bus back to the Marriott and walked back to 40 Berkeley to drop off my stuff and rest a bit, then walked back to the Marriott for dinner. The SOFIA group met upstairs in the attached shopping mall at Legal Seafood. It was good to see Dana Backman and Coral Clark again; Pamela Harman couldn’t make it. There were a few of us Cycle 1 ambassadors there and a few of the new Cycle 2s that were announced in January. The food wasn’t as good as I would have expected for the price, but we did have a good conversation. I walked one of the Cycle 2 ambassadors back to her hotel, which was only a few blocks away. I’m afraid I talked her ears off, and probably came across as completely full of myself. I just get too excited about the projects my students are working on and what we’ve accomplished this year and want to share. After dropping her off at the front door of her hotel, I walked on around to 40 Berkeley, which was just a few blocks away. I had a quiet remainder of my evening watching Star Trek on Netflix on my computer.

Most of my other activities focused on aerospace education, so I will eventually report them in my other blog: http://spacedoutclass.com after I catch up what I need to in preparation of my AAS trip in January. I will do one other NSTA blog here on the walking tour I did across Boston on Saturday evening. It’s not really about chemistry education, but it probably works here best.

From Junk to Art

A Project in Engineering Design and Materials Science

The STEAMpunk Club at Walden School of Liberal Arts

The STEAMpunk Club at Walden School of Liberal Arts

I am a pack rat. I grew up with my grandparents living next door in my hometown of Deseret, Utah. Both my parents and grandparents lived through the Great Depression and never wanted to throw anything away. Anything that could be salvaged and re-tasked or reused was kept in case it might come in handy later.

This is Herbie the Head, my first junk sculpture. It's a bit the worse for time. The frame is made of welded plastic girders. The neck and support are the rocket nozzle and heat shield of an Apollo space capsule.

This is Herbie the Head, my first junk sculpture. It’s a bit the worse for time. The frame is made of welded plastic girders. The neck and support are the rocket nozzle and heat shield of an Apollo space capsule.

I have the same compulsion, only in my case I collect objects that are clearly past being useful for their original purpose. In other words, I collect junk. But I’ve done some things with it, including making sculptures from the junk. This started during the summer after I graduated from high school. I went on a long wilderness trek wearing old boots. The trek included a 25-mile hike during a single day and night, and by the time I finally got to camp I had 16 blisters on my feet and toes. By the time I got home again, I had to take a few days off from walking or wearing shoes to let all of these blisters heal.

Philo the Robot, named for Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. He needs some repairs.

Philo the Robot, named for Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. He needs some repairs.

I decided to spend the time making something fun out of my old model kits that had all fallen apart but which I hadn’t thrown away. These included everything from a funky bathtub car to a five-foot model of a Saturn V rocket. I took the girders that held the plastic parts and used a candle to melt them together to form the frame of a head, then glued in parts and other interesting objects. The end result was rather fun, and I called the junk head “Herbie” after the Love Bug in the old Disney movies. I decided (over my mom’s protests) to enter the sculpture in the county fair. It won a sweepstakes prize!

Looking through junk, coming up with ideas.

Looking through junk, coming up with ideas.

(I met one of the judges several years later who admitted to me that they didn’t have any idea what category this sculpture was supposed to be in, so they figured it had to be the best in whatever category it was. Hence the sweepstakes ribbon. So much for my artistic ego!)

Demolishing used electronics, including old VCRs, DVD players, phones, remote controls, and calculators.

Demolishing used electronics, including old VCRs, DVD players, phones, remote controls, and calculators.

With that bit of undeserved encouragement, I continued to build other sculptures, including a robot (Philo), a three-legged dog, even a working lamp which tripped the circuit breaker the first time I turned it on. I’ve kept the robot in repair, mostly, but the others have fallen apart due to the deterioration of the glue from UV light. Yet I’ve kept all the parts.

Assembling the junk using engineering and material science knowledge.

Assembling the junk using engineering and material science knowledge.

It occurred to me last fall, as I was starting up the STEM-Arts Alliance project at Walden School, that it might be fun to teach a junk sculpture class for our Intersession program. We take two weeks between third and fourth terms to teach specialty classes. So I got approval and wrote up a description and had about ten students sign up. I bought some tools and various glues, nuts, bolts, screws, etc. and carried all my boxes of junk into school. It was quite the collection by now.

Soldering pieces together

Soldering pieces together

Although this is essentially an art project, I knew that it also tested one’s ability to attach and adapt different objects made from widely different materials. In other words, this was really a material science and engineering project. The students looked through the junk, came up with ideas, and were required to plan and sketch out their designs, including how they planned to attach the parts together. They had to use secure fasteners such as nuts and bolts for any load bearing members.

Small sculptures created by students at Walden School.

Small sculptures created by students at Walden School.

The end results were well done, and those that did the most planning were the most successful. We used drills, saws, Dremmel tools, soldering irons, hot glue guns, epoxy, and other materials to cut and adapt parts, then fasten them together.

A robot created by a student from found and re-tasked objects.

A robot created by a student from found and re-tasked objects.

Even after having ten students built projects, I still had junk left. In fact, it seemed I had more than when I started. I had kept all my old broken VCRs and DVDs, telephones and calculators, and other electronic junk, which the students tore apart. There is some fascinating stuff in there. So I decided to try the class again as a fall after school club. I named it the STEAMpunk Club, which I thought was a nice play on words.

Some of the final sculptures by the Junk Art class at Walden School.

Some of the final sculptures by the Junk Art class at Walden School.

Our objective was to build steampunk goggles and other costume items for Halloween. I went to dollar stores and hardware stores looking for possibilities for objects that could be re-tasked. Princess tiaras and canning jar rings became telephoto lenses, and old softballs became leather eyepieces. We added gear decorations and plastic parts that had been spray painted silver and gold. I also found a black derby hat for cheap in a discount store and tied my elaborate goggles to it with safety pins. I also made a second, less ornate set of goggles. I wore these with my old black coat and completed a pretty good steampunk costume. The next time ComicCon comes to town, I’ll be ready. The students came up with interesting goggles and props of their own, and even a few more junk sculptures.

Steampunk goggles I made for the STEAMpunk Club

Steampunk goggles I made for the STEAMpunk Club

I have planned out a larger sculpture for my classroom, another robot that will stand about three feet tall and have a framework or core of glued, spray-painted PVC pipe for strength and structure. I have collected all the parts, and hope to complete him sometime in the spring when my workshop warms up again.

My Halloween steampunk costume, plus a monster.

My Halloween steampunk costume, plus a monster.

Maybe by next summer I will have exorcised this current drive to make junk sculptures. I seem to vibrate between several modes or interests, including science, history, and art. Lately, I’ve been in an art mode, which is why I decided to initiate the STEM-Arts Alliance in the first place; it would give me a chance to do all the things I love. It’s been fun so far, and I think my students have responded well and enjoyed the crossover opportunities. I know these projects are a bit idiosyncratic and won’t generalize to most teacher’s classrooms, but then again, maybe someone out there can use this idea to their own advantage. I’d love to hear what you come up with.

Personal Trajectories

Cannonball trajectories. Once the ball leaves the cannon's muzzle, it is on a ballistic path.

Cannonball trajectories. Once the ball leaves the cannon’s muzzle, it is on a ballistic path.

or How People Choose Their Own Career Paths

In physics, a ballistic object is one that is given an initial push (through gunpowder or some other explosion) and then follows a path dependent on the initial velocity and direction of the canon or gun. A ballistic missile gets initial thrust from a rocket, but once the rocket is spent, the missile must follow the path the rocket set it on as it rises and falls back to Earth.

People can choose their own paths, but in some ways their paths are ballistic, determined by choices they made as far back as Middle School and High School. Once on a particular career path, it is hard to change.

I’ve been thinking about these ideas over the last week. Here at Walden School, we are transitioning to become an International Baccalaureate school, and we have initiated the Middle Years Programme this year in our high school. We have begun using ManageBac, a grading program developed for IB schools, and it has been difficult learning how to use it and the philosophy behind it.

Grades in ManageBac are determined solely by summative, not formative assignments, and each summative assignment is based on up to four criteria depending on the category of class it is. My classes are either Science or Design courses. I’ve had a bit of a learning curve to figure all this out, and so have my students. In one class, for a summative essay assignment, only 6 out of 22 students actually turned in the assignment so far.

It got me thinking: if a student chooses not to work hard in school (something that is foreign to my personality), then what trajectory are they setting themselves on and how hard will it be later to change their path?

As a science and design teacher I had to create a diagram to illustrate my thoughts. This led to a Powerpoint slideshow on the ideas of career paths and choices, which I’ve shown to the class with only six assignments turned in. I hope it dashed a bit of cold water in their faces and woke them up. They seem to have no clue what the consequences of their choices will be, so this was a “Come to Jesus” discussion.

Chart 1:  The pathway of gradual and steady effort leading to high-status careers.

Chart 1: The pathway of gradual and steady effort leading to high-status careers.

Here are my thoughts:

I graphed time as a horizontal axis and divided it into sections for the major time periods of a person’s life, including Elementary School, Middle School, High School, Young Adult, Middle Age, Maturity (I’m not going to call it “Elderly” – next year I’ll be 55 and able to get those “Senior” discounts at some stores. That’s a bit hard to accept. I don’t feel “elderly” quite yet), and Retirement.

The vertical axis is effort, or the amount of work needed to reach a particular career outcome. The slope of our pathways represents work or effort over time (the physics teacher in me has to call them Power Curves). The steeper the slope, the more power is needed and the harder the pathway is to achieve. The vertical axis for career outcomes also corresponds with the level of personal choice available, the social status of the career, and usually the pay levels achieved.

The first graph represents the standard power curve or personal trajectory that is most rewarded in our society: to work hard in middle and high school, go on to college (probably with a scholarship), get a four year degree, go on to graduate school, find a job in a high-status profession, and after a relatively few years of experience, quickly work one’s way to the more rewarding outcomes. Some choose not to go on to graduate school or go through a master’s degree, and for them there are still many choices of great professions. Teachers are in this category.

Chart 2: Mid-level career paths. Those not choosing college may go to technical schools. If they choose to go to college later, there are barriers to overcome and a steep road.

Chart 2: Mid-level career paths. Those not choosing college may go to technical schools. If they choose to go to college later, there are barriers to overcome and a steep road.

The second chart represents several middle-level career paths. For students who’s trajectory takes them through high school with only moderate grades and no scholarship options, they will have to go out and find a job and earn enough money to pay their own way if they choose to climb up to college. They may have to attend a community or junior college because top universities won’t admit them. They will encounter several barriers (the black curves), which include having to work and perhaps support a family while also going to college. They may not have the prerequisite classes or knowledge, and may need to take remedial courses such as the infamous Math 1050. It is required of all Utah college students who didn’t take higher-level math in high school, and is a bear of a class. It is deliberately hard in order to weed out those who are not serious about returning to school. I’ve known several middle-aged women who have been divorced and never completed their college education who now want to go back to school to become nurses or other careers, and are finding this one math class to be a huge barrier. It is not impossible to make this climb, but many who want to never do.

It is so much easier just to work hard and take as many high-level classes in high school as possible, while it’s free and you don’t have all these other demands on your time. Some students encounter barriers while still in middle or high school, including poverty, poor schools, an unsupportive family culture, or learning disabilities of various sorts. Some students use these barriers as crutches or excuses for not finishing high school. Yet there are so many programs available to help these students out if they choose to rise above these barriers.

Even disabilities should not be much of a barrier. We all have weaknesses and difficulties in one area or another, as well as strengths, and the key is to use one’s strengths to compensate for the disabilities. When I look at myself using Howard Gardner’s Seven Intelligences theory, I can say that I do OK on six out of the seven areas. But in one, I would be considered disabled: the area of kinesthetic intelligence. I am awkward, clumsy, and lack any type of natural grace. I can barely run, I can’t jump, and I can’t dribble a basketball even standing still. I’ve also been through a serious accident when I was young that left my right leg 1½ inches shorter than my left. It tires easily. I have had to accept that I will never run a marathon, no matter how hard I might want to or how hard I practice. That also goes for playing professional basketball.

The BYU Ballroom Dance team competing in Blackpool. No, I am not one of them. But I did take ballroom dance classes at BYU.

The BYU Ballroom Dance team competing in Blackpool, England. No, I am not one of them. But I did take ballroom dance classes at BYU.

Does that mean I get to make excuses and never try to do anything that requires physical coordination? Not at all. I went to Brigham Young University for my undergraduate degree, and I wanted very much to learn how to ballroom dance. It was a popular class, and we had the world champion ballroom dance team, so the instructors were amazing. But there was that problem of having no natural grace. However, I can keep time (I’m pretty good at music) and I can memorize complex sequences of dance steps. I understand the physics behind the steps, I can learn how to lead, and I can practice and practice, so I can use my strengths to overcome most of my weaknesses. Now I’m not going to say I made the ballroom dance team – that was never my desire. But I did manage to get good grades through four ballroom dance classes, including the upper division classes (although I never did master the samba). I took two classes from Lee Wakefield himself, and I even received a medal at the Medals Ball, where we had to dance a routine with a partner. That little medal means more to me than many of my academic honors, because it was so much harder to earn. And, by the way, I met my wife by asking her to dance the waltz with me.

The barriers that exist for someone gaining a high school diploma are at least partially illusory. Yes, poverty, family culture, poor schools, and a host of other social problems make it difficult for far too many students to get a high school education. But not impossible. I fully support all efforts to remove these barriers; it is one of the major reasons for having governments: to create equal opportunities for all and to secure our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Utah College of Applied Technology logo

Utah College of Applied Technology logo

If a regular four-year college isn’t in the cards, there are other options. In my state, we have UCAT, the Utah College of Applied Technology. It has about ten campuses statewide, and I used to teach digital media classes at Mountainland Applied Technology College, one of the largest campuses in the system. It acts as a magnet school for Career and Technical Education (CTE). Students who are still in high school (as well as adults) can travel to MATC for three hours each day to learn technical careers, such as Nursing or Dental Assistant, EMT, CDL, graphic design, computer networking/IT, welding, cosmetology, and a host of other occupations. It’s even possible, if they really apply themselves, to graduate from high school with a college associate degree in hand. People who go this route (the purple pathway) find there way to technical careers that have excellent pay and make a strong contribution to society.

Eventually, some of those who went the technical career route choose to work towards a management or high-end professional career. This usually means going back to school at night or online while still working, as they are likely to be in middle age by now and supporting a family. They have barriers to overcome and a steep learning curve to follow. It is a possible, although difficult, option. I represent this by the yellow paths.

It used to be possible for people with only a high school education to find decent jobs in manufacturing, mining, construction, or many other so-called “blue-collar” occupations that require skilled labor, work experience, and on-the-job training. With many of these jobs unionized, they were ensured a good wage and solid career path. Just as I graduated from high school, several industries built plants in the area of my school. A large coal-fired power plant was built as well as a lime mine and refinery, among several others. Quite a few of my classmates were able to secure work in these industries without going on to college or outside training programs. They don’t have the education to move up to management, but they’re doing all right. We had a high school reunion about a year ago, and I asked several of these classmates how things were going for them, and they gave an identical answer: “I’m livin’ the good life!” It took some further questions to determine what they meant, which was they earned enough to go on the occasional vacation out of state, and they will have enough to retire in another ten years or so and buy a motor home to see the country in. And they’re right. This is the good life for many people. Their path is represented by magenta.

There’s just one catch. Many of these blue-collar jobs are disappearing. This is partially due to off-shoring and outsourcing of manufacturing and service jobs to China, India, and elsewhere. It is also because many of these jobs are becoming more technical. For example, one of my students who actually did turn in the essay paper discussed his plan for staying competitive in a flattened world economy. He plans to become a car mechanic, and recognizes he will need some training, because cars now run on computer systems for injecting fuel and require a computer system to diagnose what’s wrong with them.

Geneva Steel Plant in Vineyard, Utah circa 2005, shortly before demolition began.

Geneva Steel Plant in Vineyard, Utah circa 2005, shortly before demolition began.

As blue-collar jobs disappear here, those who held them can move up to technical careers with additional training. We had a large steel plant here in Utah Valley called Geneva Steel, part of U. S. Steel Corporation. It was built here during World War II because of the good railroad transportation, closeness to coal, and the iron mines in southern Utah. It employed thousands of people in this valley for many years, paying good wages. Then in the 1980s U.S. Steel fell on hard times (partly due to aging machinery and partly due to antiquated processes and competition from Japan and China), and Geneva Steel was sold in 1987 to a consortium of Utah Valley businessmen and employees, led by Chris and Joseph Cannon. They tried to maintain jobs as long as possible, but they simply couldn’t compete. The plant shut down for good in 2002. Since, then the entire mill has been torn down. I used to drive past the plant on my way to MATC, and it was amazing how quickly a huge steel mill (the largest one in the western United States) became an empty field. The remaining equipment was sold to a Chinese steel firm, and only one large blast furnace bucket remained, plus a great deal of ground contamination. The thousands of employees had to retire or find jobs elsewhere, and some of them came to MATC for retraining. As I observed their struggles, I found that it’s not easy going from a blue-collar to a white-collar job.

What of those students who barely manage to graduate from high school or who have to earn a GED? The rise to college becomes very difficult and steep because they have never learned how to learn. If they don’t receive additional education or training, then their options are limited. Generally they find their way into service-oriented jobs (the red pathway) that have limited room for advancement. They also have a long career, over 40 years, working long hours to stay afloat at dead-end jobs. These are hard jobs to have, requiring them to work as unskilled laborers or stand for long hours or work outside in the cold or heat. They have to work so much harder in the long run than their classmates who worked a bit harder in high school and had a higher trajectory as a result. It’s not to say people with a higher trajectory don’t occasionally work at service jobs – I’ve certainly done my share of them during summers. But I did them by choice, because I wanted to pick up some extra money, and now I choose not to work those jobs at all. I can make more money staying home and writing grants, because I’ve learned how to write. I don’t have to work standing all night on an assembly line.

Chart 3: All Career Paths

Chart 3: All Career Paths. Students who graduate high school only used to be able to find skilled labor jobs such as construction or manufacturing. Those who do not are generally left with unskilled labor or service jobs. Those who do not graduate have even fewer options.

Finally, there are those who do not graduate from high school or earn a GED, for whatever reason (the orange path). They’ll find it difficult to do anything but the most menial of unskilled labor, and they will find steep competition from non-English speaking immigrants and others who have traditionally filled these jobs. They often pay less than minimum wage, which makes it impossible to support a family without working 2-3 jobs. They must rely on welfare or public assistance to survive.

Only a few manage to rise above these limited options, and the pathway is extremely steep the longer they wait. Those that are unable or unwilling to take that path and put in the effort but who still want to earn money find themselves looking for shortcuts such as turning to crime. Instead of being productive members of society, they become a drain upon it.

Chart 4: Retirement Age for Various Career Paths.

Chart 4: Retirement Age for Various Career Paths.

One final note: the higher the person’s trajectory (based on the choices they make in high school), the sooner they can retire and the better their retirement is likely to be. The cyan line indicates retirement age, and if you have made your money early you can retire at 45 and go have fun, see the world, and even work a second career if you want. The options are unlimited. In a dead-end service job, you may not have any retirement except Social Security. Certainly not enough to live “the good life.” You’ll find limits all around you, limits you put there yourself because of the choices you made in high school and beyond, or believed someone else when they tried to put limits on you.

I don’t know how much this sank into my students’ consciousness. I gave them a deadline for Friday at 3:00 to get all their make-up work in. A few retook tests, but no one else turned in the essay project. Sigh. I told them up front that this was the most important thing I could ever teach them. One of them, when questioned, said he knew he should be thinking more about these things, but just didn’t feel like it. Apparently, what we really need in our education system is to train students to be more responsible. But that’s a battle for another day.

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