Thanks to the wonderful group of bloggers at Geek Dad for the chance to share ideas with some of the people with whom I identify most closely. I’ll start out by recounting an important moment in my Geek Dad life.
When my son Andy was 12 years old, he entered his junior high school science fair. The challenge was to invent something new and useful. There was a great deal of schoolyard prestige attached to the event and he badly wanted to win. But inventing is hard work and inventing something useful is even harder. And when you’re 12 it is really, really hard.
He thought about it for a while and, after various aborted attempts and blind alleys, came up with the idea of a self-buttering toaster. What a brilliant idea from such a young person! (I readily admit my fatherly bias.) The device Andy designed was intricate yet simple: a wood and steel construction that held a slice of bread at an angle in front of a carefully wound matrix of nichrome wire heating elements. While the bread toasted, the heat from the wires melted a glop of butter on a perforated metal holder positioned over the bread. The butter dripped through the holes and on to the toasting bread. Voila! There was a slice of automatically buttered toast. By my lights, this was a pretty terrific invention for a sixth grader.
The evening of the fair approached, and Andy and I looked forward with anticipation and excitement .The judges methodically walked up and down each aisle. They asked questions, measured things with rulers, and made notes on clipboards. When the judges came to Andy’s table, the toaster worked perfectly. With self-assurance and a smile, he handed each judge a slice of warm, buttery Wonder Bread for a snack
But when the winners were announced, Andy’s name wasn’t called. Crestfallen, he approached the judges and asked, “Why didn’t I get a ribbon?”
“Well, Andy,” said a judge, “we thought your machine was dangerous. After all, it uses electricity and it gets very hot.”
“Of course it does. It’s a toaster,” he protested. “It’s supposed to get hot and use electricity. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a toaster.” Unswayed by logic, the judges would not reconsider.
So who won? First place went to a girl who made a cap and vest for her hamster. Second place went to a boy who “made” radar.
“Hamster clothes? That’s so lame,” Andy whispered to me during the award ceremony. “And that the second place kid didn’t invent radar. He just cut out some pictures of radar antennas and glued them to a poster board.”
I’m pleased to report the incident didn’t stop Andy’s interest in making and trying new things. Now, 12 years later, he is a graduate student at the University of Michigan studying African archeology. He’s currently spending summer on a field expedition in Ghana.
My kid was competent to take on this project. I did advise him of course, but he conceived and made it mostly himself. I can sort of see the judge’s point in a way — what if he did hurt himself while making the toaster? What if some less competent child tried to emulate him? What if…? All those “what ifs” get out of hand. Putting foam corners on everything, watching kids like hawks all day, and denying reasonable activities is not a good approach in the long run.